China, Taiwan derail Japan's WCPFC proposal to compare AIS and VMS data

Published on
December 20, 2019

The 16th Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meeting in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, took place 5 to 11 December, 2019. The regional fisheries management organization sets rules for an area that accounts for over half of the world’s tuna catch.

At the meeting, the Japanese delegation submitted a proposal for a research project to compare WCPFC-aggregated historical high-seas vessel-monitoring system (VMS) data with automatic identification system (AIS) data. The project could provide an estimation of AIS data coverage and of the total fishing effort on the high seas that WCPFC manages.

AIS is an automatic tracking system that uses a VHS transceiver on ships to transmit such information as ship position (from GPS), compass bearing and rate of turn, as well as identifying information. The information can be displayed on a radar-like display or on a regular computer screen.

It is used by vessel traffic services to manage marine traffic, and by ships to avoid collisions with other ships. Recently, various services – some free and some paid – are providing this information to the public over the internet. Researchers have realized that historical AIS data can be analyzed to find patterns of vessel movement that may indicate illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing or transshipping activity. Advances in big data and artificial intelligence are automating this process. Now, various projects aim to compare AIS data with reported fishing and transshipping data to check for possible under-reporting.

VMS is used by environmental and fisheries regulatory organizations to track and monitor the activities of fishing vessels. The contracted system that provides VMS information to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) VMS and the WCPFC VMS is referred to as the “Pacific VMS.” About 1,500 WCPFC-registered vessels report to the WCPFC VMS through the Pacific VMS. The Japanese proposal would require access to the WCPFC VMS data, so it cannot be conducted without WCPFC consent.

The study would be a project of a three-year research collaboration entered into in September 2018 by the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency, Global Fishing Watch, and the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) at the University of Wollongong. The partners intend to generate a clearer picture of fishing activity in the Pacific, including the pattern of transshipment activity, and for the findings to be used to inform decision-making at RFMOs. In addition to the AIS project, the group is analyzing nighttime satellite imagery that picks up the location of brightly-lit vessels like squid-jiggers and “night-light” fishing fleets, as well as transshipments.

Takumi Fukuda, Japan’s director for International Fisheries Coordination, which operates as a part of the Fisheries Agency of Japan’s International Affairs Division, said Japan’s effort to advance the project was thwarted this year by China and Taiwan.

“Our proposal on the comparison between AIS and VMS data received general support from WCPFC members, but China raised concern that their VMS data must be removed when the Secretariat provides VMS data to Japan, due to their domestic legal constraints. Further, Chinese Taipei stated similar reluctance about the use of their vessels’ VMS data for the proposed project,” Fukuda said. “Since VMS data of Chinese and Chinese Taipei fishing vessels is the most important part for the proposed project, we withdrew the proposal this year.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which holds observer status at the WCPFC, commissioned a separate study by Global Fishing Watch (the same organization as in the Japanese proposal) using AIS data. The result is titled, “A Comparative Analysis of AIS Data with the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission Reported Transshipment Activity in 2017.” This study was focused on transshipping, while the Japanese proposal would be focused more on fishing effort. Information on transshipments of WCPFC-sourced and managed species is publicly available and is provided in the WCPFC Secretariat Annual Report on Transshipment and elsewhere, so this study was able to be undertaken without a vote of the members.

The WCPFC permits at-sea transshipments of tuna and tuna-like species between carrier vessels and fishing vessels, but specifies reporting requirements for carrier vessels and fishing vessels for transshipments in the convention area, except when both the catching and transshipping take place within a county’s territorial or archipelagic waters. The study used AIS data and machine learning to detect behaviors – such as contacts or close proximity of vessels for two or more hours, and loitering – that indicated possible transshipping.

The analysis found that at least 233 WCPFC-authorized carrier vessels were observed on AIS to have been present in WCPFC Convention Area waters in 2017, with 103 displaying vessel movement characteristics consistent with the behaviors above; but only 27 carrier vessels reported high-seas transshipments. While 1,089 transshipments were reported on the high seas, AIS analysis showed 2,128 instances of behavior indicating potential high-seas transshipping.

Another Pew-submitted document, “A Review of Transshipment Trends in the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Convention Area and Recommendations for Management,” noted that while the WCPFC Convention text and the Conservation and Management Measure on transshipment state that to the extent practicable, transshipment must be conducted in ports, the latest WCPFC Secretariat Annual Report on Transshipment indicates that the number of reported high-seas transshipments per year has increased from 552 in 2014 to 1,409 to 2018 (up 155 percent).

The WCPFC transshipment measure was first passed in 2009, and there hasn’t been a review of its effectiveness over the past decade, so the commission agreed last year to form a working group to look at the issues that need to be further analyzed. The Transshipping Intersessional Working Group tasked with this job recently submitted a document, “Draft Scope of Work for the Transshipment Information Analysis in Support of the Review of CMM 2009-06,” which details its plans.

Jamie Gibbon, a manager for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries team, said his organization has high expectations for the task force.

“We’re really pushing for that group to take into account the full suite of data that is held by the commission, so that it can take a really close and effective look at how well the measure is actually managing transshipments, both in port and on the high seas,” he said.

Gibbon pointed out that observer reports are a weak point. By regulation, the carrier vessels have an on-board observer present 100 percent of the time, but there is no requirement for the observers to then submit their reports to the commission. Many vessels’ flag-states don’t feel they have a requirement to collect the reports, so there is a lack of data on what is actually happening on board.

“The observer program requirements are in our view too vague at this point. The observer data is only valuable if it’s being submitted and reviewed by authorities,” Gibbon said.

Gibbon urged more work by intersessional working groups to try to find compromise on proposals, and to avoid the deadlock on important issues that occurred in this year’s meeting.

Photo courtesy of Mark Vyz/Shutterstock

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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