​A stock photo of a fisherman emptying a new full of fish on a trawler.
A stock photo of a fisherman emptying a net full of fish on a trawler. Photo by Getty Images

‘Trapped’: Women Working as Fishery Observers Allege Sex Harassment, Assault at Sea

Four women who worked on the front lines of fisheries monitoring in Canada, often alone on a boat full of men, allege their jobs were a hellish grind of sexual harassment, assault, intimidation, and threats.
Jimmy Thomson
Victoria, CA
February 9, 2021, 12:00pm

Twenty-six days on a tiny ship with a lecherous old man: if that had been in the job description, Kim would probably have found another job. 

But she wanted to be a professional marine biologist, and working on a miserable rust bucket as a fisheries observer was a means to an end, something she could do to protect the environment while gaining valuable experience. 

She had overcome the seasickness, the unreliable shifts, and the long hours that drive many people out of the business. But she didn’t sign up for 3 1/2 weeks of harassment.

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On the ship that served as both her workplace and temporary home, Kim, then in her mid-20s, was constantly catcalled, hit on, and leered at, with no place to escape. As far as personal space goes, the options at sea are limited: even the sleeping quarters are usually shared. For other sufferers of workplace harassment, at least they get to go home at the end of the day. 

One day as she loaded supplies, a fisherman, a man as old as her father, stopped her. “What’s in the box?” he asked. “Is it condoms?”

By this point, she said she had been sexually assaulted twice by her supervisor. She dressed in shapeless, baggy clothing and stopped wearing makeup, and said she would “purposely act disgusting” around the fishermen—all to avoid the inevitable come-ons. 

Kim, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, knew she wasn’t the only woman being abused far out at sea.

Four women, including Kim, who worked on the front lines of fisheries monitoring in Canada, say they were dropped into a hellish grind of sexual harassment, assault, intimidation, threats, and horrifying animal abuse while they watched helplessly. In one case VICE World News has learned of, a woman was raped at the hands of a crew member while docked far from home, unable to leave the boat. 

Two of the former observers spoke with VICE World News on the condition they not be named, out of fear of their former colleagues and bosses. 

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Three of the women said the private company that put them there, Archipelago Marine Research, failed to protect them. The company said in a written response to VICE World News that it does not take such reports lightly. 

“We have company policies to address any behaviour like this that may occur,” an Archipelago executive wrote. “These policies have been in place for many years and are regularly reviewed and updated according to legislated changes and input from staff and subject matter experts.”

The company said it has procedures in place for dealing with complaints of harassment, which include initiating outside investigations. “Archipelago management staff are required to follow up with the skipper, licence holder, our contract authorities, and DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) depending on the nature of the incident,” the spokesperson wrote. 

The company declined in multiple instances to comment on the behaviour of its staff or ship crew members. (The crew are not Archipelago employees, but rather work for the owners of the ships.) 

Fisheries observers are paid for by the fishing industry, but their reporting data ultimately goes to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which is responsible for ensuring industry is acting sustainably in Canadian waters. The Canadian government denies it is responsible for ensuring the companies protect their employees. 

“At-sea observers are not DFO employees, they are employed by at-sea observer corporations,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in a statement. “As such, the corporations are responsible for ensuring a safe working environment of their employees when deployed on a fishing vessel in accordance to the appropriate provincial or federal legislations prevalent to worker safety.”

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The experiences of observers are indicative of an even bigger issue in the global marine industry: Stuck between authorities with no clear jurisdiction for investigation, observers who suffer abuse or worse rarely find justice. 

“Everywhere observers go they’re getting harassed,” Liz Mitchell, president of the Association for Professional Observers, told me during earlier reporting into the treatment of observers.

“The main problem is the lack of transparency,” Mitchell said. “I’m sure it’s underreported.” 

Cases of harassment and assault can go unreported for years or even permanently, and there is no formal mechanism for making them public. 

In internal emails obtained by VICE World News, Archipelago has repeatedly warned current employees not to speak to the media, making it difficult to ascertain if the sexual harassment is ongoing. But current and recent observers told VICE World News that intimidation, threats, and other types of harassment are not uncommon.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not answer questions about how many cases of sexual assault and harassment have been reported, but the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs a similar program, said that in 2018 it received 11 reports of sexual harassment and 12 reports of sexual assault against observers. 

“It’s a fucked-up industry,” Kim said. 

No support

All trawlers and many other fishing boats in Canadian waters need fisheries observers—who are hired and trained by private companies—on board. They watch what gets caught and what gets thrown away, an essential part of the monitoring system that is set up to make trawl fishing sustainable. 

It’s a hands-on job on the front lines of fisheries science, working with wildlife, taking samples, and monitoring the single biggest interaction people have with the ocean.

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The Canadian government doesn’t employ observers directly; it designates private companies to do that work. Archipelago Marine Research is one of the nine companies designated by Fisheries and Oceans Canada on its website. 

Unlike in Alaska and other jurisdictions that mandate a two-person observer team, when the observers go to sea in Canada they’re on their own. Neither the government nor Archipelago Marine Research provide observers with private satellite phones or other emergency communications equipment, and they work alone among the crew.

Apart from deciding which companies can send observers to sea, the government also oversees the industry, funds and monitors training programs, writes the regulations, and audits the companies. So while the industry is privatized, Canada’s government plays a central role. 

My previous reporting found that some observers felt they were being intimidated by skippers into misreporting data, with huge consequences for the environment. 

The observers speaking up now say that for women it’s even worse, with sexual harassment and assault adding another layer to the threats and intimidation that plague the industry. 

Brittany Visona came into the job in 2017, overqualified, with a master’s degree in marine biology and experience working on trawlers in Scotland. 

She liked the work, when she could get it. But among the difficulties of the job was the regular discomfort of being pursued by the men she was working with. “It’s like being at a club,” she said. “You’re like, ‘I’m actually at my job; I shouldn’t be getting comments like this.’”

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During that time, she said she learned quickly that to get the crews on her side, she had to ignore sexual advances and comments—“play the nice card, let things roll off,” she said, to avoid escalating the situation. 

When a young fisherman followed her around the ship “like a lost puppy dog” asking to kiss her, she stayed quiet. “I don’t want to say something that’s going to make my life harder out here, and I might be back again,” she thought at the time. 

Visona did not report her experiences to her employer: Archipelago. She only lasted six months on the job. 

Because of the industry’s extremely high turnover—Archipelago employees estimate the average at-sea observer only lasts a few months—observer companies are often looking to fill dozens of postings a year. The newbies, many of them biology graduates, quickly find themselves aboard ships at sea or in tiny outport towns, often out of cellphone range and far from any realistic chance of help or escape if things go badly.

It’s the same situation faced by women in many male-dominated resource industries: being far from help, surrounded by men. A 2018 survey found that 47 percent of women who had left jobs in mining said they had experienced or witnessed harassment. Most of it was sexual or sexist in nature. 

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Three of the four observers who came forward to VICE World News for this story said they had previously reported instances of sexual harassment and assault to Archipelago.  

The company said it follows up with staff for debriefing, and managers are available 24/7 “should issues arise at sea.” It also has an employee assistance program and “a critical incident stress peer team who can respond to employee concerns.”

Despite this, none of the observers who spoke with VICE World News said they ever heard from Archipelago about tangible outcomes of their complaints, years later. They say their experiences forced them from the industry, and, in some cases, from science entirely. “I couldn’t even look at biology anymore,” one said. “The trauma from those times is really deep.”

Internationally, it’s not uncommon even for fisheries observers to go missing. (Archipelago has never had such an incident.) Mitchell of the Association for Professional Observers knows of at least half a dozen observers who have been lost internationally in recent years, and said there are likely several more. 

Most recently, in 2015, U.S. fisheries observer Keith Davis disappeared in the eastern Pacific. He vanished from the boat without a trace—along with weights that “would have been ideal for sinking a body at sea,” Hakai Magazine wrote.  

‘You’re just another pair of tits on the wall’

Erin graduated from her biology degree into a job market saturated with people like her: inexperienced, eager, and willing to go to great lengths to prove themselves. “We’re a dime a dozen,” she said.

Erin, whose name has been changed due to concerns for her safety, didn’t know much about the job going in, but the three-week-long training program with Archipelago Marine Research told her what she needed to know: you go to sea on a fishing boat as a sort of embedded traffic cop. You live on the boat, estimating how much and what kind of fish the crew is catching, and making sure it’s obeying the law. 

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She soon learned one other thing: “You are all alone out there, and nobody wants you there.”

In 2010, Erin had been working as an observer for about a year, which hadn’t been easy. Three months of her life had been spent on back-to-back trips on one ship that considered women bad luck—except in the galley, where a porn centrefold was hung above the seat Erin would be expected to occupy at meals. 

At first she wasn’t even allowed on the deck, which prevented her from doing her job—a common complaint among observers. And then the harassment really got going. 

“It was all day, every day,” she said. Rumours were started about her sleeping with the cook, a married man more than 20 years older than her. She believed the crew spread the rumour among other boats as well. They started telling her about other female observers who would sunbathe naked on the top deck. 

“If I was to give in, then they might be nice to me—that was the implication,” she said.

When she brought up the harassment with Archipelago, she said she was brushed off. “I told the office within a couple trips in that I was being constantly sexually harassed by the crew,” she said.

“I would report it to the supervisor, and they would basically make fun of me and act like it was a funny joke, and not help me, not encourage me to report it to HR.”

Archipelago continued to send her back out on the same boat. The company declined to comment on her case, citing privacy laws. 

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When she eventually managed to work on other boats, the sexual harassment followed her. On one boat she said there was more porn, plastered inside and around the bunks from floor to ceiling. To her, it was a message. “That’s your status right there,” she said. “You’re just another pair of tits on the wall.”

Archipelago said it can’t control what skippers do with their boats. “The working conditions of fishing vessels as well as any other third party premises or facilities where our staff conduct their roles is outside of our direct control,” the spokesperson said. “That said, we support our staff should they raise any concerns around their safety or feel harassed at any time while on the job.”

Erin said a captain of another boat urged her again and again to change her clothes in front of him, or to sunbathe naked. At the same time, when she caught him illegally catching and selling huge amounts of halibut, she said he threatened her into silence. “He made it pretty clear that I had to either turn my back on it, or my trips… were going to be absolutely miserable,” she said.

Unlike observers in Alaska and elsewhere, observers in Canada are not provided with satellite phones, emergency transponders, or other means of communicating with the outside world. They’re reliant on the ship’s captain and crew for access to communications equipment. 

In Alaska, factory trawlers have a two-person team of observers, who can work around the clock just as the fishermen do, while also supporting each other. Despite recommendations otherwise that Archipelago said it has made to the government, Canadian observers always work alone. 

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VICE World News asked Fisheries and Oceans Canada if it was considering updating safety protocols to be more in line with the U.S. standard. The ministry again referred VICE World News to the observer companies.

The end result is more of the same: observers, working alone, dependent on the goodwill of the ship’s captain for contact with the outside world. 

“When you’re stuck on a boat, you just have to put up with it. There’s nothing more you can do,” Erin said. “You’re absolutely trapped.”

A year into the job, she found herself aboard a factory trawler based in B.C. 

Trawlers work by dragging a giant net through the water, and in doing so, they bring in a lot of things they don’t want. Known broadly as “bycatch,” it can be anything from fish such as sharks or halibut, seals and other marine mammals, and corals and sponges pulled off the seafloor. 

Factory trawlers take that to an extreme. They’re known in the industry as “freezer trawlers” because, with 20 or more crew, they process and freeze the fish onboard. This allows them to scoop upwards of a million pounds of fish from the ocean in a trip that can last weeks. Fishermen have quotas for bycatch, and exceeding that quota can effectively shut down a ship’s activities or even a whole fishery.

On these ships, before the recent introduction of electronic monitoring—a new high-tech system of cameras and sensors aboard ships billed as a way of replacing or supplementing observers—the only person standing between the crew and the financial consequences of those rules was the observer.

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Erin was subject to screaming rages when she tried to report the waste of fish she witnessed. “He would yell at me until I was crying,” she said of the ship’s captain. She locked her cabin door at night out of fear. The captain, she said, bullied her into misreporting what she saw and falsifying documents.

Erin said this all occurred amid sexualized and demeaning advances from those aboard the ship. “No one spoke to me if it wasn’t derogatory,” she said. 

Then things got even more horrific. Bycatch is meant to be thrown overboard alive if possible. When Erin was around, she said it would often be tortured and killed instead.

“They had crew (members) that were going out of their way to stab sharks in the head while I was watching,” she said. Birds that landed on the ship, attracted by the ship’s lights but unable to take off in the cramped space, were stomped on and crushed, she recalled. Skates, a shark relative that looks like a stingray, were torn in half by a crew member while he stared directly at her.

“They could go back in the water,” she said. “There’s a threatening idea there, when someone is killing something and looking at you right in the eyes when they’re doing it.”

The harassment and the waste are two sides of the same coin: the alleged harassment the observers say they experienced prevented them from doing their jobs, and the failure of their employer or the government to protect them allowed the situation to continue. 

Erin began keeping two separate ledgers—one that tracked the real numbers, and the other that she could show the captain without being screamed at—to protect herself. When she later reported to Archipelago what happened, she said her bosses used her separate ledgers against her, to prove that she was deceitful and untrustworthy. “They left us with a lot of guilt—that those things were our fault,” she said. 

The situation escalated over the 10-day trip to the point where Erin said the captain ordered her off his ship. In the wind and rain, Erin disembarked into a half-inflated rubber boat. She was brought to shore on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, B.C., where her belongings were dumped in the mud, and left to struggle up the beach to the port house. 

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She knows the exact date, because it was a busy day the town had been looking forward to for weeks. And she, in her wet, muddy clothes, holding her incomplete observer’s notes and bags from a trip cut short, had a front-row seat. “I just stood there and watched the Olympic flame go past me,” she said. 

‘I wish I had chosen differently’

About a year later, Katie, whose name has been changed due to concerns over her safety, found herself on the same trawler. The same captain wasn’t there, but she said the toxic environment hadn’t changed from what Erin had experienced. 

Like the others, Katie had started the job as a way to gain some valuable experience in field biology. Plus, she saw Archipelago Marine Research as a company that was protecting the environment on behalf of the public. 

“I thought I was out there to save the world,” she said. 

She was just a few months into the job when she had a chance to interview with an aquaculture company as a research technician—the kind of job that recent marine biologist grads clamour for. 

But at the same time, Archipelago had asked her to go aboard the trawler. The 24-day trip would earn her $5,472, about a quarter of her usual annual wages, in less than a month. Besides, the end goal was to work toward a chance at scientific trips with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a plum assignment where observers got to do real science while rubbing elbows with people they hoped to work with one day.

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“Giving that up for an interview didn't make sense,” she told VICE World News. Or so she thought at the time. “I wish I had chosen differently.”

Stepping aboard, Katie immediately found herself receiving attention from the man who managed the “factory” part of the ship, where the fish are processed. She was 23, while the factory manager was married and more than a decade older than her. “He decided I’d be rooming with him,” she said. 

Archipelago declined to comment on the manager’s actions, citing privacy laws. When asked how common it is for a factory manager to decide that a female observer would bunk with him, the spokesperson said, “Is it unusual? That entirely depends on the circumstances on the vessel and on that particular trip. The bunk assignment for an observer depends on the number of crew, composition of the crew and the available sleeping quarters for vessel staff and the observer, all of which can vary from trip to trip.”

Factory trawlers are among the largest fishing vessels in B.C. waters, and often have multiple rooms for sleeping.

Katie said the harassment started right away, with the manager forcing himself on her in exchange for GPS coordinates and access to the factory floor—basic information she needed to do her job. The ship’s cook started refusing to feed her. 

“My understanding was that the skipper told the cook not to feed me if I wasn't going to lie about the numbers,” Katie said. 

The manager became her only means of getting food. 

His advances grew more aggressive. She would try to bring up his daughter in conversation, or make a joke of it. She told him about a dream she had about a human-sized fish-butchering machine. 

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At first he backed off, but then his advances ramped up. He told her he had friends in the company. He would lie next to her in her bed and grope her. “I felt like he was getting off on the fact that I was saying ‘no’ and ‘get off,’” she said.

A friend she confided in at the time confirmed having heard her story. “She felt trapped,” he told VICE World News. 

When Katie told Archipelago what she had gone through, she said the HR representative asked her if she was feeling guilty about having led the man on, since she herself had a boyfriend. A later email from HR reviewed by VICE World News had a more sympathetic tone but confirmed the details of what she said happened aboard the ship.

“Thank you for your honest and well put description of the events,” an HR representative wrote. “It is a very complicated situation that you were in.” 

The email goes on to insist that although HR understood Katie was “embarrassed and feeling a little responsible... It does read like (the manager) used the situation to his advantage.” 

Katie said as far as she knows, nothing came of her complaint, and that for years, the manager would text her. The chance for Katie to work on the scientific trips never came. “I was told they needed strong men; there were already too many women working with (Fisheries and Oceans Canada),” she said.

From then on, Katie deliberately wore clothing she thought would make her look unappealing. It didn’t always work. “On a lot of these boats you are sharing a sleeping area with a lot of guys,” Katie said. “It was not uncommon to hear them masturbating while they’re watching you.”

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Not all fishermen, nor all crews, were openly contemptuous. Some, Katie found herself enjoying their company.

She found one such crew in 2013 when she boarded a smaller boat than the factory trawler she and Erin had worked on. 

She felt at ease on the ship, and got along particularly well with one shipmate. When they docked in a small fishing village in Washington state, on an evening in May, her shipmate went into town and came back drunk. 

Katie said he raped her in her cabin. 

“He was a lot bigger than me and he overpowered me, and I wasn’t able to fight him off,” she said. No one could hear her over the noise of the idling engine. 

The next morning he found the sheets bloody, and though he said he didn’t remember what had happened, he was able to guess. He apologized to her. “I just froze,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Photos Katie provided match landmarks in the marina. The metadata show the photos being taken in 2013, about three weeks before Katie said the rape occurred, and during the time she said she was assigned to the ship.

Since she was in the U.S., she didn’t know if it was legal for her to leave the ship, which was due to depart. She didn’t know where the police station was there.  

What she did know was that when she had reported sexual harassment and assault to Archipelago previously, she had felt the company brushed her off.

Archipelago declined to comment on the allegation.

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Katie had another week left on the boat, and she figured a rape kit when she got back to Vancouver would be worthless. So the assault went unreported to Archipelago and the police. “I just had to withdraw into myself and pretend things were fine,” she said. 

Quitting

Before Kim stepped aboard her first boat, like all observers, she needed training in the basics of observing. Over three weeks in the fall of 2012, she learned to estimate fish proportions based on what she could see coming out of the huge nets, how to identify all the species she would be likely to see, and how to report what she found. 

Everyone passed the course. Kim said her trainer went out drinking with the new class at Big Bad John’s, a popular country bar in downtown Victoria. 

“That’s where my first sexual assault happened,” Kim said. 

Kim alleges he groped her. She didn’t file a report, because there had been alcohol involved and she didn’t think she would be believed.

“He was my supervisor, so who would I go to? He abused his power,” she said.

Kim had not yet stepped foot on a boat but said she had already been sexually assaulted. 

Archipelago declined to comment on Kim’s case or their then-employee’s behaviour, only confirming he is a former employee.

The second alleged incident of groping came at a Christmas party. Again, drinking was involved. And again, she said the supervisor groped her, hugging her from behind while he tried to put his hand down the front of her shirt. 

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Again, she made the decision to not report the incident.

“I didn’t want to go through the hassle of being questioned, and then people questioning my integrity and questioning my story,” she said. 

But this time her then-boyfriend wrote a series of furious emails to the supervisor, laying out the accusation. VICE World News has reviewed the emails, which detail the allegations Kim described.

“Archipelago is not your personal dating service,” he wrote. “Women have been warned to watch themselves around you when you have been drinking.”

“(G)etting drunk with and groping women on the dance floor is sexual harassment,” he wrote.

The emails somehow caught the eye of management, and in April 2014 Archipelago hired an outside company, Engaged HR, to investigate Kim’s allegations. As a result of the investigation, the employee was told not to drink with his subordinates.  He wasn’t reassigned away from Kim. “After I made the complaint, (he) was still my supervisor,” Kim said.

Employees say he was later fired, but not because of that incident. Archipelago refused to comment on how he left the company. 

Later, when she faced the 3 1/2 weeks of harassment, nothing would come of that formal written complaint either. “They actually put another female observer on that boat,” Kim said.

That was her last trip. She realized she couldn’t do it anymore. She went back to school, abandoning marine biology entirely, disgusted not just by the way the industry overlooked the treatment of women, but by the way it failed to care about the environment they were there to protect. 

“The numbers you report to DFO, I realized it’s all bullshit; we weren’t actually doing anything meaningful,” she said. “I realized that they're pillaging the ocean.”

The other women, too, came to regret their decisions to become observers.

“You’re at work—and you’re also having to just survive,” Brittany Visona said of her time at sea. 

Erin’s frustration and trauma built up to the point that she found herself lashing out at her friends, or crying for seemingly no reason. She went on medical leave to deal with the trauma, and then quit three months later. 

She left the industry entirely. “Sometimes I look at the pictures, and I start panicking and can’t look at them anymore,” she said. She became a server, and now works in a library. 

For Katie, it took years of therapy to recover from the trauma of her rape. Her relationship fell apart, and she left the business to retrain for an unrelated job. She had become an observer as a way to boost her biology career. Instead, like Erin and Kim, it destroyed it.

“My experiences on the boat have really shaped my life, and caused a lot of trauma I wish could take back,” she said. “I wish I had never gone out there.”

Follow Jimmy Thomson on Twitter.