At least 6% of global fishing is ‘likely illegal’ as ships turn off trackers | fishing

A new study reveals that up to 6% of global fishing activity is hidden because merchant ships disable their tracking systems, a practice that can be used to conceal illegal fishing.

Ships use Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), tracking beacons that enable them to locate them on global shipping maps. The researchers applied the machine learning algorithm to a data set of fishing vessel activity collected by the non-profit organization Global Fishing Watch, which included more than 3.7 billion AIS messages from fishing vessels between 2017 and 2019.

They discovered geographic hotspots for ships disabling their trackers, including West Africa, the Argentine coast and the northwest Pacific – suggesting that these are the locations where illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is likely to occur.

Illustration: Global Fishing Watch

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for a fifth of global catches, causing economic losses of up to $23.5 billion (£20 billion) annually. It is the third most profitable natural resource crime after timber and mining. It is also a major driver of marine ecosystem destruction and has been linked to human rights abuses.

“This is the first time that intentional AIS disruption has been quantified and mapped on a global scale,” said report author Heather Welch, a spatial ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Before this work, we did not have an understanding of the scale of the disruption problem, where it occurs, who does it and why they do it.”

They found that AIS disruption is a risk factor for “two common behaviors: fishing at unauthorized sites and unauthorized transshipments,” said Welch, whose research was affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Welch said transshipment — the unloading of goods from one ship to another — can be used to wash illegally caught seafood up the supply chain, and has been linked to forced labor and human trafficking. It added that transit transport and illegal fishing have an environmental cost, and hurt national revenues and jobs.

AIS systems are not universally authorized, and the act of disabling an AIS device is not per se illegal. Legal reasons for disabling include hiding a site from competitors, and sometimes hackers. But ship darkening is a “big red flag,” according to Global Fishing Watch.

The results of the study indicate that AIS disruption was highest near transshipment hotspots and the maritime borders of countries’ exclusive economic zones, particularly disputed areas. More than 40% of the total hours lost due to suspected disruption occurred across four IUU hotspots: the Pacific Northwest (13%), adjacent to the exclusive economic zones of Argentina (16%) and West African countries (8%), and near Alaska (3 %).

The report found that tuna purse seiners had the highest activity levels for vessels blocked by AIS disruption (up to 21%), followed by squid trawlers (up to 7%), longlines drifting and trawl boats (both up to 5%). . .

In terms of the total number of disruption events, Welch said, Chinese-flagged ships were the most closely related to Taiwan, Spain and the United States. With a fraction of the time lost to disruption events, Spain had the highest percentage, followed by the United States, Taiwan and China. However, Chinese fleets spend more time at sea than fleets of other countries.

Welch suggested authorities could use “real-time information about disruption” to patrol at sea, or to conduct inspections of ships in port that have turned off their AIS devices in suspicious circumstances.

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