3 years after his son vanished, a father wonders why

By Rob Hotakainen | 06/04/2018 01:19 PM EDT

John Davis has been devastated since his only son disappeared in September 2015 while working as an observer on a fishing vessel, 500 miles west of Peru.

Keith Davis, 41, a fisheries observer from Arizona, disappeared while working on a fishing vessel west of Peru in September 2015. His father believes he was murdered.

Keith Davis, 41, a fisheries observer from Arizona, disappeared while working on a fishing vessel west of Peru in September 2015. His father believes he was murdered. Disappearance of Keith Davis/Go Fund Me

John Davis has been devastated since his only son disappeared in September 2015 while working as an observer on a fishing vessel, 500 miles west of Peru.

The Concho, Ariz., resident suspects his son, 41-year-old Keith Davis, was murdered for doing his job: trying to make sure fishermen follow the rules.

"He saw something on board out there, and they took care of him," Davis said. "He was doing a job to save the fisheries, and he ended up getting killed because he did it too well."


Three years later, Davis, 71, still has no death certificate for his son and no answers from authorities on exactly what went wrong.

Keith Davis died while working for the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. While NOAA didn’t have direct jurisdiction in his case, the agency had been involved in the creation of the IATTC observer program.

The loss set off alarms at NOAA Fisheries, which asked an external review team to examine its policies after the unusual deaths of Davis and two other observers in less than nine months: Josh Sheldon, an Illinois native, died in March 2016 at the age of 40, and Usaia Masibalavu, a citizen of Fiji, died two months later.

The two men appear to have died after illnesses, but questions remain unanswered in their cases as well.

The four-member review team’s report, made public two weeks ago, concluded that NOAA Fisheries needs to operate with more transparency and that it should have done more to press other federal agencies for help in closing the cases (Greenwire, May 14).

"It remains troubling that three observers … were lost in the line of duty over the space of a year, yet there has to date been no official closure or systematic analysis of lessons learned with respect to any of them," the report said.

Frustrated by the inaction and alleging that his son’s case had been "totally mishandled," Davis has hired a private investigator and is trying to enlist help from an Arizona congressman, Democratic Rep. Tom O’Halleran.

"He was a homicide detective before he got into politics, so he might have some insight on it," Davis said. "There certainly was not enough investigation."

Davis does not put the blame on NOAA Fisheries, which he dismissed as "data collectors."

And while the FBI and Coast Guard also helped investigate the case, Davis said he’s most irked with Panamanian authorities. They took the lead in the probe because Davis’ son disappeared while working on a ship registered in Panama, the Victoria 168.

"The problem was Panama — they didn’t know what the hell they were doing," Davis said.

The review team’s report said the IATTC uses American observers, but none of the U.S. health and safety regulations apply to foreign-flagged carrier vessels.

Consequently, the report said, in the event of an accident involving a U.S. observer, "jurisdictional and investigative authorities and responsibilities are complex, and the capacity of the U.S. government to intervene is extremely limited."

‘We’ve got some ideas’

Davis said his son, a graduate of the University of Arizona, was his best friend, a diving buddy and a traveling companion.

"We traveled all over the world doing stuff together," Davis said.

Davis described his son as an "efficient observer" who always wanted to improve safety, even helping draft an International Observers Bill of Rights that called for all observers to have better ways to communicate. He said his son had no access to a phone when he disappeared and was only allowed to use an email account that required going through a captain.

"It’s only logical that he should have had some means of communication to the outside world," Davis said.

The review team had no luck figuring out what happened to Keith Davis.

When the team filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act with the FBI, that agency said it could not release any details on an open investigation, which remains a missing person case.

Davis’ theory — and he admits it’s only speculation at this point — is that his son was getting ready to report some wrongdoing when he was targeted by two men on the ship.

"One approached him, and the other one hit him with something," Davis said. "My son’s pretty powerful, but he was hit over the head or knocked out. … We’ve got some ideas."

Commercial fishing is considered among the most hazardous occupations in the nation, with a fatality rate 29 times higher than the national average, according to the report.

Davis said observers are unwelcome on most vessels, often subjected to harassment, assault, threats and violence.

"They don’t want the observer on board for obvious reasons: If they’re catching too many halibut in a place where they should be catching pollock, then they get fined," he said.

NOAA Fisheries operates with roughly 900 observers and at-sea monitors, all of whom have college degrees and are professionally trained. They’re assigned to fishing vessels, usually working for contractors or under cooperative agreements, to both collect data and enforce fishing laws.

In the summer of 2016, NOAA Fisheries released documents that showed a sharp increase in the number of complaints by observers — from 35 in 2013 to 84 in 2015, with a top fisheries official acknowledging that "tensions have been on the rise" (Greenwire, June 3, 2016).

By late 2016, NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Science and Technology decided it was time to order a review of its safety policies, due to the "highly unusual loss" of the three observers in such a short period of time. Until then, the review team said, NOAA had a generally good safety record with observers, with six work-related deaths over 40 years.

"While the tragedies involving Mr. Davis and Mr. Masibalavu did not occur in U.S. domestic fisheries within the direct scope and authority of NOAA Fisheries observer programs, they were well regarded and respected members of the U.S. observer community," said John Ewald, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries. "These incidents further heightened our already high and existing priority on observer safety."

‘There’s no transparency’

In its 545-page report, the review team put special emphasis on Keith Davis’ disappearance, saying the case had suffered from "an information vacuum."

Many observers told investigators that no one at NOAA had even bothered to tell them that some of their colleagues had died while working.

It’s a persistent criticism.

"I agree with the report — there has been an absolute vacuum of information," said Liz Mitchell, president of the Association of Professional Observers (APO) and a former fisheries observer.

As a fix, the review team recommended that NOAA Fisheries "develop and maintain a robust, timely and transparent process" for reporting incidents.

"Particularly in cases of incidents involving serious injury or death of an observer, the agency should ensure that all necessary resources are brought to bear so that the root causes can be identified, appropriate actions can be taken to prevent or mitigate the consequences of a recurrence, and lessons learned can be applied to future safety training and policy development," the report said.

The review team also had a suggestion for NOAA Fisheries and other government agencies on what to do when an observer dies: consider putting out a press release to avoid "public and media speculation."

NOAA is promising to bring more transparency to its operations.

Ewald, the NOAA Fisheries spokesman, said the agency is "deeply saddened by the tragedies" and plans to develop "an action plan based on the findings and recommendations of this report." And he said the agency will make public reports on its progress.

Mitchell said her organization is trying to help pay for the costs of the private investigator who’s looking into Davis’ disappearance.

"I don’t call it an incident — I call it a murder," she said. "And APO is raising funds to assist with an independent organization that was originally financed by Keith’s father."

Mitchell said observers now find themselves "standing against a dark sector of commercial fishing" that’s linked to illegal fishing and other types of organized crime, including drug smuggling, gunrunning and human trafficking.

"Mostly, the perpetrators receive a written warning and go back fishing," she said. "At best, the guy is fired and he gets a job on the next boat. These are public resources, and observer programs are partly federally funded — and that is paid by taxpayers. The agencies aren’t tracking harassment publicly because they don’t want the public to know."

While observers are largely invisible to the public, Mitchell said she believes more people might feel differently about buying fish if they knew what observers are going through.

"Think about it: If that tuna on your plate could tell the story of how it got there, how interesting a story that would be, but not so palatable," she said. "Nobody knows because nobody’s tracking or holding these people accountable."

As he awaits answers in his son’s death, John Davis said he feels an obligation to get the word out.

"I’m not an observer, but we all are in some sense in this world," he said.

"There’s so much illegal shit going on — it’s just outrageous," he added. "We need to make the world know that there’s a lot of criminal activity out there, and it goes on every minute of the day out there. … There’s no transparency."

Deaths after illnesses

Masibalavu, a six-year observer, became ill two weeks after boarding a vessel that left Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, on April 23, 2016. When his condition appeared to worsen, the captain decided to head back to port, but Masibalavu died en route.

According to the review team’s report, "all parties concluded that Mr. Masibalavu appeared to have died of natural causes from a pre-existing medical condition."

Masibalavu worked for the 17-nation Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, based in the Solomon Islands. He served on board a U.S.-flagged vessel, collecting fisheries information under the authority of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.

But the team said NOAA Fisheries still needed to "bring a transparent closure to the loss."

"In the absence of an investigative report or press release … the circumstances surrounding the loss of Mr. Masibalavu while deployed at sea on a U.S.-flagged tuna purse seine vessel remain officially unresolved," the report said.

In the meantime, Sheldon’s family is looking to the courts for relief.

Sheldon worked for Riverside Technology Inc., an engineering and consulting firm that has a contract to provide observers for the Pelagic Observer Program, one of five programs administered by NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami. The observers deploy from ports along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

According to a legal petition filed by his mother, Sheldon was exposed to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) while working on a vessel. He was taken by helicopter to the Ochsner Medical Center, West Bank, in Gretna, La., where he died 10 days later.

The case has prompted questions of who should be held liable. While his family has sued Riverside and Mayport C&C Fishery Inc., the owner of the vessel, Riverside argues that as a fisheries observer, Sheldon should be considered an employee of the federal government.

Such an interpretation would be consistent with a 1996 law passed by Congress, which said fisheries observers should be considered federal workers for work-related injuries under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act.

But the review team said the law has a "substantial loophole," applying only to injuries occurring at sea, excluding coverage for those injured on land, in transit or training, or working at a shore-side facility.

NOAA also requires contractors to provide insurance coverage for observers, though the coverage varies widely among regions and contracts, the report said.

The issue gets even more technical: Observers who suffer an injury on land can be covered by a state’s workers’ compensation program, and while observers working in international fisheries are usually provided with insurance, there’s no requirement that employers cover them.

With Sheldon’s case tied up in litigation and neither side "fully forthcoming," the review team said it could not determine whether Riverside had paid for any of Sheldon’s hospital expenses.

Sheldon, who worked as a marine biologist for 15 years, had a personal hero: Jacques Cousteau, the French naval officer, scientist and filmmaker who studied the sea.

His obituary included the poem "Gone Fishin’," by Delmar Pepper.

Here’s how it ended:

"To all those that think of me,/ Be happy as I go out to sea./ If others wonder why I’m missin’/ Just tell ’em I’ve gone fishin’."