Avoiding Detection at Sea? - Oceana USA

Avoiding Detection at Sea?

Oceana’s report documents international cases of commercial fishing vessels potentially evading the public eye

Press Release Date: March 12, 2018



Megan Jordan | email: mjordan@oceana.org | tel: 202.868.4061


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Oceana published a new investigative report highlighting four commercial fishing vessels that appeared to turn off their public tracking systems, potentially questionable behavior known as going dark at sea.  

While this public tracking system, called the Automatic Identification System (AIS), was initially designed as a safety mechanism for vessels to avoid collisions at sea, it can also be used to monitor and track vessel movements over time. A ship’s crew may turn off its AIS broadcast for a variety of legitimate reasons, but this behavior may indicate that a vessel is hiding its location and identity to conceal illegal activities like fishing in no-take protected areas or entering another country’s waters without authorization.

Using Global Fishing Watch, which provides a never-before-seen view of commercial fishing activity worldwide, Oceana identified the following events where a ship’s AIS device was possibly turned off:

  • A Panamanian commercial fishing vessel seemed to disappear on the west side of the Galápagos Marine Reserve, reappearing after 15 days on the east side of the reserve.
  • An Australian commercial fishing vessel appeared to disable its AIS near the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve on 10 separate occasions over one year.
  • A Spanish commercial fishing vessel appeared to repeatedly go dark when approaching The Gambia’s national waters over a one-and-a-half-year period.
  • Another Spanish commercial fishing vessel appeared to turn off its AIS signal consistently over a seven-month period while operating in the national waters of at least five African countries and on the high seas.

“We need to be asking the obvious question: ‘Why would any vessel want to hide its tracks?’” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director for illegal fishing and seafood fraud at Oceana. “Going dark from public tracking systems raises legitimate questions about a fishing vessel’s activities at sea. Increased transparency can help deter illegal fishing, prevent unauthorized fishing in a nation’s waters and improve monitoring of fishing around the world. Fishing vessels should be required to have tamper-resistant AIS devices broadcasting at all times to increase transparency and accountability at sea.”

Oceana is working to help stop illegal fishing, increase transparency at sea and require traceability of all seafood. To those ends, Oceana urges governments to require all commercial fishing vessels to be equipped with and continually transmit tamper-resistant AIS technology. These tracking systems are essential for transparency and public accountability of global fishing operations. In addition, they improve maritime safety and can help combat illegal fishing and increase compliance of laws and regulations.

Access Oceana’s report here.

Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one third of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 200 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that one billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal, every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit http://www.oceana.org to learn more.

*Any and all references to “fishing” should be understood in the context of Global Fishing Watch’s fishing detection algorithm, which is a best effort to determine “apparent fishing effort” based on vessel speed and direction data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) collected via satellites and terrestrial receivers. As AIS data varies in completeness, accuracy and quality, it is possible that some fishing effort is not identified and conversely, that some fishing effort identified is not fishing. For these reasons, Global Fishing Watch qualifies all designations of vessel fishing effort, including synonyms of the term “fishing effort,” such as “fishing” or “fishing activity,” as “apparent,” rather than certain. Any/all Global Fishing Watch information about “apparent fishing effort” should be considered an estimate and must be relied upon solely at your own risk. Global Fishing Watch is taking steps to make sure fishing effort designations are as accurate as possible.