New tool helps fisheries enforcement track criminal fishing around the world

A new online tool maps vessels that have fished illegally or committed other crimes at sea, giving fishery managers and enforcement officials another way to keep tabs on illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Spyglass, which contains records for nearly 3,700 vessels and 1,200 companies so far, aims to document which vessels are the highest risk for IUU fishing so that they can be stopped.

The tool will be especially helpful for developing countries that might not have the financial resources to adequately fund surveillance efforts. Enforcement officials will be able to consult the database to identify vessels that have a history of illegal activity, even if those vessels haven’t been formally sanctioned. They will also be able to see which vessels have been blacklisted by regional fishery management organizations.

The data in Spyglass comes from a variety of sources, including the Combined IUU Vessel Fishing Vessel List maintained by Trygg Mat Tracking. Witness testimony about human trafficking or slavery is added to the tool, too, even if there isn't an official verdict handed down from authorities. Information from media reports about vessels caught in illegal activities is also included, regardless of whether those vessels are formally sanctioned.

Documented infractions include anything illegal, such as using forbidden gear, fishing during unauthorized times or in prohibited locations, underreporting catch, or lying about vessel capacity – plus crimes that are not directly associated with fishing, such as murder, human trafficking, or smuggling of people, weapons, or wildlife.

Spyglass creator Dyhia Belhabib, who is the principal investigator in community fisheries at Ecotrust Canada, also receives information from tipsters about vessels sanctioned by countries, or vessels that commit crimes but go unsanctioned because countries lack the capacity to do so.

"Whenever a vessel has been reported as having committed something that was illegal, it's going to be on the list, whether or not the vessel has been sanctioned," Belhabib told SeafoodSource. 

Gathering the information for the database hasn’t been easy. Individuals often hesitate to share sensitive information. Bureaucracies can hinder data sharing when information about apprehended vessels lives in an office drawer somewhere and has to be retrieved.

In fact, Belhabib first had the idea to compile information on criminal fishing vessels in 2014 after working with a Senagalese fisheries enforcement official to track down a foreign-flagged vessel that had escaped. They located the vessel in just a few hours by gaining information under the table, since the bureaucratic processes of working with Interpol were taking time, and they needed to act fast. 

"The entire bureaucratic chain was broken," Belhabib said. "It takes less time to find a vessel and sanction it when you don't have to request the information.”

Around the world, illegal fishing can have an especially adverse effect on coastal communities when vessels underreport their capacity. Fishermen suffer when IUU fishing drives down global prices.

"Illegal fishing hurts legitimate harvesters, their families and communities, and fisheries management. By shining a light on the bad actors, we can hopefully get them off the water making our fisheries more sustainable," BC Commercial Fishing Caucus Coordinator Jim McIsaac said in a statement.

Spyglass publishes data from the Criminal Record of Fishing database that Belhabib created, owns, and has made publicly available. That database contains information on various offences, including illegal bycatch and discarding, non-conforming gear, human rights abuse, quota violations, smuggling, underreporting catch, and fishing without a permit or in prohibited areas.

Not all the information in the Criminal Record of Fishing is available on Spyglass, however. Some information is confidential and needs verification, and so is available to enforcement officials but not the general public. In some cases, general public users will be able to see incidents, but not the name of the vessel, company, or other identifiers.

"This is an excellent contribution to the global fisheries science and management infrastructure," University of British Columbia Professor of Oceans and Fisheries Economics Rashid Sumaila said in a statement.

So far, the data in Spyglass indicate that human trafficking and slavery are more common in Southeast Asia than anywhere else, while fishing without authorization is more common in East and West Africa. Quota offenses happen the most in the eastern United States, while there are drug trafficking hotspots in Latin America, the U.S., East Africa and Southeast Asia.

In the future, Belhabib is considering researching the individuals behind the companies that own vessels, since many owners hide behind corporate facades. Those owners are able to continue operating without getting caught.

"It's always the same facade companies that come back over and over again," Belhabib said.


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500