Vessel location data suggests that more than 1,500 transfers of fish catch may have occurred on the high seas in the western and central Pacific Ocean in 2016 – far more than the 1,000 transshipments that were actually reported.
Another 700 or more transfers, called transshipments, may have taken place in national waters in the region.
The dearth of clear information on transshipment in the waters overseen by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission – and the lack of effective reporting, monitoring and data sharing of transshipment activity – threatens to obscure illegal fishing while contributing to inaccuracies in fish stock assessments.
A new report by The Pew Charitable Trusts concludes that there is a strong probability more transshipment occurred in WCPFC waters than was reported to the secretariat by carrier vessels or their relevant flag or coastal state authorities.
“It appeared that there was a lot more activity on the high seas than what was being reported,” Mark Young, a senior manager for international fisheries at Pew who spent 23 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, including as chief of enforcement for the Pacific district, told SeafoodSource. “What we found were a lot of data gaps or anomalies or non-standard responses.”
Transshipment, which is the practice of transferring catch from one vessel to another, enables fishing vessels to stay at sea longer, offloading their catch to carrier vessels with enormous sub-freezing refrigerated holds. But that transfer also makes it possible for illegal, unreported and unauthorized catch to enter the seafood supply chain.
A 2016 study estimated that more than USD 142 million (EUR 128 million) worth of IUU catch is transshipped each year in the western and central Pacific Ocean alone, most of it misreported or not reported by licensed fishing vessels.
At-sea transshipment is poorly managed across tuna regional fishery management organizations (RFMO), according to Holly Koehler, vice president of policy and outreach at the International Sustainable Seafood Foundation, which advances long-term conservation and sustainable use of global tuna fisheries.
"A lack of visibility into and oversight over these high seas transshipment activities is a detriment to all RFMOs’ ability to wipe out IUU fishing activities globally, among other challenges to the sustainable, long-term management of tuna fisheries,” Koehler told SeafoodSource.
To estimate how many vessels conducted transshipping activities, Pew compared public data from WCPFC reports with vessel location data derived from automatic identification system signals.
Pew’s analysis found that only 25 carrier vessels reported high seas transshipments in the secretariat’s territory in 2016, but location data showed that more than 100 vessels might have conducted 2,200 transshipments at sea or in port in the region.
Pew wasn’t able to count an additional 381 vessels not observed on AIS, most of which were under 300 gross tons, and couldn’t observe any transshipments between two longline fishing vessels. Significant gaps in AIS data also might have hid transshipments during the voyages of another 70 authorized carrier vessels.
More than half of the AIS-detected potential high seas transshipments took place in two relatively small regions: On the high seas off Japan and in an area of overlapping jurisdiction between the WCPFC and the IATTC in the central Pacific.
Transshipment activity can be detected by the vessels’ unique movement patterns. A carrier vessel must be stationary or moving very slowly during transshipment, a sharp reduction from transiting speed, Young said.
Computer algorithms can detect those movement changes, and alert human analysts to potential transshipment activities.
“Not typically does it stop and loiter around because time is money. You’re using fuel. Why would you slow down? One reason is you might be meeting a fishing vessel and doing transshipment,” Young said. “When a carrier vessel is out on the high seas and they’re in known productive fishing grounds and they slow down to one or two knots, there’s only a couple reasons they might do that.”
Implementing best practices around monitoring, reporting and data sharing would help combat illicit transshipment, Young said.
Vessels should be required to report transshipments to all the relevant authorities, not just flag states, but also coastal and port states and the secretariat of any governing regional fishery management organization, Young said. And that reporting should be done in real time. Carrier vessels entering the convention area of an RFMO should be required to submit a simple report stating they’ve entered the area an intend to do transshipment so they can confirm if they have a fishery observer aboard.
All vessels involved in transshipment should be required to have human or electronic observation, Young added. Carrier vessels already have requirements for 100 percent observer coverage, but there is no requirement that the observers submit reports to the WCPFC, only to the flag states, where the fate of those reports becomes a mystery.
“From our current understanding, it’s a bit of a black hole,” Young said.
Photo courtesy of Adam Baske