Study aims to unmask fishing vessels, and owners, obscured by loopholes

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  • A new study reveals information about the shifting identities of the global fishing fleet, which can help tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) fishing.
  • The research combines a decade’s worth of satellite vessel tracking data with identification information from more than 40 public registries to generate a first-of-its-kind global assessment of fishing compliance, foreign ownership of vessels, and reflagging.
  • It found that nearly 20% of high seas fishing was likely unregulated or unauthorized, and that the reflagging of vessels, which operators may do to avoid oversight, mainly took place in ports in East Asia, West Africa and Eastern Europe.
  • The researchers plan on making a broader data set publicly available soon and regularly updating this data so that authorities have access to timely information.

New research has generated a comprehensive system for tracking and monitoring fishing vessels — from the moment they disembark from the shipyard to their eventual dismantlement at a ship graveyard — which can help determine possible instances of unlawful fishing.

Published in Science Advances, the new study fuses a decade’s worth of satellite vessel tracking data with identification information from more than 40 public registries to generate a first-of-its-kind global assessment of fishing compliance, foreign ownership of vessels, and reflagging — the process of ships changing their flags from one country to another, often without a legitimate reason.

Researchers from vessel transparency platform Global Fishing Watch (GFW), Duke University, and the Stockholm Resilience Centre found that nearly 20% of fishing vessels operating on the high seas — that is, areas beyond any individual country’s jurisdiction — were likely unregulated or unauthorized, and that most of this vessel activity was concentrated in the southwest Atlantic Ocean and the western Indian Ocean. Moreover, the researchers found that many vessels frequently changed identity, possibly to avoid detection.

According to the study, most reflagging happens on foreign-owned vessels in ports in East Asia, West Africa and Eastern Europe. Four ports, in particular, had the highest level of reflagging activity: Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain’s Canary Islands; Busan in South Korea; Zhoushan in China; and Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. It also determined that of 116 flag states taking part in reflagging, 20% of these states were responsible for about 80% of the activity. While flag change is not always a cause for concern, vessel operators may do this to avoid detection while undertaking illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) fishing activities, as a way to avoid regulations or obligations, or to get a tax or financial benefit, experts say.

“There are lots of reasons why a vessel will change its flag … but in some cases, vessels may choose to deliberately change their flag to avoid oversight,” study co-author Courtney Farthing, the international policy director of GFW, tells Mongabay. “And when there are so few places where that [reflagging] happens, you can target resources and make sure you understand why that reflagging is happening and that it’s being tracked and monitored.”

Study lead author Jaeyoon Park, a senior data scientist at GFW who has worked on this research for the past five years, says he hopes the study will assist authorities, researchers and conservation experts to better manage and enforce global fisheries to ensure sustainability.

“This study and our data … is one step forward,” Park tells Mongabay. “As more vessel information becomes available in the public domain, the easier it will be to demonstrate which vessels are compliant and which are rogue operators.”

Two Taiwanese longline fishing vessels.
Taiwanese longline fishing vessels in the Pacific Ocean. Image © Greenpeace / Paul Hilton.

In the future, the researchers plan to incorporate a broader data set into GFW’s interactive map of vessel-based human activity and to regularly update this data to give authorities and other stakeholders timely information.

A 2009 study estimated that IUU fishing accrues annual losses of up to $23.5 billion and that reflagging can help enable these destructive fishing practices. However, it’s been historically difficult to track IUU fishing due to the absence of a centralized database that consolidates vessel tracking and identification information. The Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Refrigerated Transport Vessels and Supply Vessels, an initiative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is seeking to generate such a database. However, as the study authors note, it’s still in its developmental phase. In 1987, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) also set up a ship identification number scheme, which gives vessels a number that stays with them even if other identification elements, such as the name or flag, change. Yet only a selection of flag states, industries and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) are required to follow this system.

“We would like to work more closely with FAO or other initiatives as well, just to complement and combine our efforts to have better information about vessels available to everyone,” Park says.

Dyhia Belhabib, a principal investigator at Ecotrust Canada and director at Nautical Crime Investigation Services, who was not involved in the research, says the study is a “brilliant attempt at understanding the global reflagging patterns with the data at hand.” She also calls the finding that vessels tend to reflag in ports “surprising.”

“One of the most common strategies for illegal fishing, and other types of maritime crimes is reflagging at sea, sometimes fraudulently,” Belhabib tells Mongabay in an email. “To me, reflagging at port may be an indication that it may not be a diversion strategy but rather the use of a loophole to obtain some strategic (administrative or economic) benefits. Flag changes after AIS [automatic identification system] gaps are also common in this space.”

Vessels are generally required to use their satellite-enabled AIS at sea for safety reasons, but records illustrate that transmission gaps are common. There can be genuine reasons for AIS gaps, such as spotty satellite reception or interference. Still, experts say that vessels engaging in IUU fishing may deliberately go “dark” by turning off their AIS to avoid detection.

Another tracking system is VMS, or vessel monitoring system, which is required on vessels longer than 24 meters (79 feet), but only some countries publicly release this information.

GIF of fishing effort by foreign-owned fishing vessels.
GIF of fishing effort by foreign-owned fishing vessels. Image courtesy of Global Fishing Watch.

Belhabib says the new research has some limitations: the absence of national registries, which are not always publicly available, and a lack of information about beneficial ownership — that is, data about who ultimately owns vessels and benefits from fishing activities.

Companies and owners who engage in IUU fishing and want to obscure their identity may register the ownership of the vessel to a series of shell companies, which obfuscates information. A change in vessel ownership may be another way to avoid detection, says Belhabib.

“Change of ownership is also an indication of diversion sometimes,” she says. “Indeed, an owner can create another subsidiary, or shell company that ‘owns’ a vessel to hide previous ties to him/her if they had been associated with compliance issues.

“If an owner is associated with human rights and labor abuse and wants to rebrand a vessel, they can ‘sell’ the vessel to another owner, but in reality, the latter can be just a subsidiary or a shell company,” she adds.

Farthing says she’s hopeful that political leadership will lead countries to adopt a more transparent approach in the coming years and make fisheries data more publicly available.

“We need to see transparency of vessel registry information,” Farthing says. “That has to include the identification, that has to include the authorization, that has to include the beneficial ownership information. And we need to see transparency of tracking data that should be either through mandating AIS or publishing delayed VMS so that the authorities have everything they need in that toolbox to make the right call.”

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

Banner image: Thai reefer Precious 9 is one of several reefers which collect fish from Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing hotspots in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Indian Ocean over the last few years. Image © Biel Calderon / Greenpeace.

Related reading:

Dalian Ocean Fishing, subject of Mongabay probe, now sanctioned by U.S.


Park, J., Van Osdel, J., Turner, J., Farthing, C. M., Miller, N. A., Linder, H. L., … Kroodsma, D. A. (2023). Tracking elusive and shifting identities of the global fishing fleet. Science Advances, 9(3). doi:10.1126/sciadv.abp8200

Agnew, D. J., Pearce, J., Pramod, G., Peatman, T., Watson, R., Beddington, J. R., & Pitcher, T. J. (2009). Estimating the worldwide extent of illegal fishing. PLOS ONE, 4(2), e4570. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004570

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Conservation, Crime, Environment, Environmental Crime, Environmental Law, Environmental Politics, Fish, Fisheries, Fishing, Governance, Illegal Fishing, Illegal Trade, Law, Marine, Marine Conservation, Oceans, Overfishing, Trade


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