Satellite location data helps fight illegal fishing, even as vessels still evade detection

At least every 30 seconds, more than 70,000 fishing vessels responsible for most of the world’s catch broadcast automatic identification systems (AIS) signaling their identity, location, and speed.

The AIS systems were originally designed to help large vessels avoid collisions on the open ocean, but in recent years, conservation groups and fisheries enforcement have used those signals for a new purpose: spotting vessels that might be fishing illegally.

But this technique is far from watertight. Oceana, a conservation group, has documented millions of instances since 2012 of vessels going dark by turning off public trackers.

“Vessels disabling their public tracker is a common occurrence and is happening in all corners of the world — we are just now beginning to understand how widespread the practice is,” Beth Lowell, senior campaign director for illegal fishing and seafood fraud at Oceana, told SeafoodSource.

Vessels might turn off tracking for multiple reasons, many of them legitimate, such as evading pirates. But when a vessel turns off location broadcasting near marine reserves and other areas where fishing is limited or illegal, it raises questions, Lowell said.

For instance, Oceana documented a Panamanian vessel on the west side of the Galapagos Marine Reserve that seemed to disappear for 15 days before reappearing on the east side. Meanwhile, an Australian vessel’s AIS signals were shut off near Heard Island and the McDonald Islands Marine Reserve 10 times in one year, and a Spanish vessel went dark near The Gambia’s national waters repeatedly.

“Why did a vessel appear to turn off its AIS at the edge of a protected area? What do these vessels not want us to see? Why are they avoiding detection?” Lowell asked.

While the International Maritime Organization requires large vessels to carry AIS, it’s up to governments to decide if and how those requirements apply to fishing vessels. In the European Union, fishing vessels longer than 15 meters (about 49 feet) have to be equipped with AIS. In the United States, vessels longer than 65 feet (about 20 meters) have to have AIS.

Smaller vessels are not required to transmit AIS, but new technologies are coming online that would make it more cost-effective for them to do so, Lowell said.

Oceana recommends that flag states require fishing vessels flying their flag to carry and transmit AIS, and that coastal states require vessels fishing in their national waters to transmit AIS, Lowell said. Vessels should also notify their flag state when they turn off tracking for legitimate reasons.

“A mandatory AIS requirement would be advantageous for governments to efficiently monitory foreign vessels in their waters and would enable their registered vessels to show the world they are following the rules,” Lowell said. 

On its own, tracking vessels’ locations via satellite won’t prevent illegal fishing. Law enforcement officials need more specific evidence, and prosecutors need analysts who can compile and decipher records to pin crimes on specific fishermen and vessels.

To combat illegal fishing in a global way, the international police agency Interpol launched Project Scale in 2013. The project aids in the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information related to fisheries crimes, and was started with a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts and with the support of the government of Norway.

National governments and law enforcement command bureaus share information with Interpol’s network about vessel location and activities, and Interpol helps with crime analysis so countries can better target enforcement actions. However, actual enforcement and prosecution still happen at the country level.

“The premise of international law is sovereign and flag state rights,” Daniel Schaeffer, the project director at Pew’s Ending Illegal Fishing Project, told SeafoodSource.

In most countries, fisheries enforcement responsibility falls to fisheries agencies, which rarely have the resources to do enforcement effectively, Schaeffer said. Instead, Pew believes that illegal fishing poses enough of a national security threat to merit a whole-government approach to enforcement involving navies, coast guards and marine police.

Dwindling fish stocks caused by illegal fishing can cause upheaval in communities struggling to cope with fewer resources, Schaeffer said.

“Loss of fishing leads to loss of employment in fishing community and loss of revenue in the ports,” Schaeffer said. And severe unemployment can lead to political instability. “The most inexpensive way to address instability is to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Countries that are major fish importers can also pressure exporting countries and flag states to improve fisheries management and enforcement by blocking market access, Schaeffer said. South Korea and Thailand, for instance, both made major changes to fishery enforcement to comply with demands from the European Union, Schaeffer said.

“Any country will say they don’t have the resources, but when push comes to shove, if they want revenue, they’ll find a way,” Schaeffer said.


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