Tracking Suspicious Activity at Sea - Oceana USA
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June 13, 2019

Tracking Suspicious Activity at Sea

The world’s oceans support billions of people with food and livelihoods. The global demand for seafood has more than doubled in the last 50 years, which has unfortunately led to overfishing and declining fish populations in many areas. Vessels must now travel farther and fish for longer in order to remain profitable, but some bad actors choose to engage in illicit activities to drive down costs, such as participating in illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing or even using forced labor.

Poor oversight, weak international laws and lack of transparency make commercial fishing very susceptible to illicit activity. Oceana used the Global Fishing Watch mapping platform—a tool that allows anyone in the world to view global fishing activity in near real-time—to analyze vessel activities that may signal an increased risk of IUU fishing, forced labor or even human trafficking. The findings were published in a recent report.

Oceana found that some vessels with confirmed or suspected records of IUU fishing or human rights violations exhibited certain behaviors that are generally regarded as suspicious by intergovernmental organizations, international organizations, other NGOs and researchers. Recognizing behavior patterns like these could help governments and law enforcement identify vessels that may warrant investigation or closer monitoring.

One behavior Oceana identified is AIS avoidance, in which a vessel stops transmitting its public tracking data, called Automatic Identification System (AIS). This could allow vessels to enter protected areas and fish illegally without detection. Some vessels have been observed heading towards Marine Protected Areas, only to have their AIS track disappear and reappear on the other side, sometimes days later.

Some vessels can spend extended periods of time at sea. Crew members that are victims of forced labor or human trafficking may be held on fishing vessels for more than a year with little opportunity for assistance or intervention. This is made possible through an activity known as transshipment, in which fish, supplies or crew members are transferred from one vessel to another. While transshipping can be legal, it allows fishing vessels to remain at sea for longer periods of time, away from the scrutiny of port officials. Vessels with a history of IUU fishing or human rights abuses that spend extended time at sea should be flagged for further investigation and inspection.

Some vessels may also try to hide illegal activities by avoiding certain ports. The Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) is an international treaty under which signatory countries agree to review vessels’ histories and conduct inspections if illegal activities are suspected. Vessels have been observed avoiding ports in countries that are signatories to the PSMA, perhaps to avoid the extra scrutiny.

Oceana recognizes that the lack of transparency in the fishing industry can facilitate IUU fishing, human rights abuses and other criminal activities. To help combat this lack of transparency, Oceana recommends:

  • Banning transshipment at sea: Governments and fishery managers should require that transshipping only occurs at ports where authorities can closely monitor the exchange.
  • Expanding vessel transparency: Governments and regional fishery management organizations should require the constant use of tamper-resistant, public vessel-tracking devices.
  • Increasing publicly available vessel information: Governments and regional fishery management organizations should maintain publicly available, up-to-date vessel registries that include unique vessel identification numbers, licenses and permit payments, as well as information about the vessel’s managers, operators and owners.
  • Sharing information about vessels engaged in forced labor: Intergovernmental organizations should create a shared list of vessels with histories of human rights abuses to help facilitate information sharing and enforcement.
  • Improving monitoring and enforcement: Governments should monitor and enforce relevant fishing regulations for their fleets worldwide. Coastal states should monitor and control foreign vessels that they allow to fish in their national waters.