Marine observers collect data about the fish caught at sea and monitor the practices of crews aboard commercial fishing vessels. They are the eyes and ears on the water: the people that ensure responsible, safe, and sustainable fishing. Lee van der Voo’s eye-opening investigation into Big Tuna’s practices makes clear that the tuna we eat may not be as safely caught as we think — and that the people tasked with upholding sustainable seafood standards risk their lives each time they board a boat. Many, like Fijian observer Simi Cagilaba, experience harassment and abuse. Others have disappeared or been murdered at sea.

Canned tuna accounts for two-thirds of the $42 billion industry worldwide. The companies behind the Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea, and StarKist brands control the largest share of those cans. It is this multi-billion-dollar haul that entices vessels from all over the world to hunt what is arguably the largest and most lucrative wild protein supply left on Earth. But while marine observers protect the fish, there are scant protections for the observers themselves. Sometimes, the job is a little like being sent behind enemy lines to make sure that the other army plays fair.

It is common for formal inquiries like Cagilaba’s to be abandoned, languishing in a state of perpetual unresolve, and for problem boats to vanish into the opacity of the tuna supply chain, while issues aboard go unresolved. Yet a combination of technology, policy, and consumer pressure on suppliers could actually keep the problem from happening in the first place.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.