Maritime & Trade Blog

Reeling in illegal fishing

More people are giving thought to where their food comes from, and there is perhaps no better example than seafood. With the power of global logistics, it is possible to enjoy fresh lobster, fish, shrimp, and other delicacies of the deep in a restaurant thousands of miles from the nearest coast. However, eco-conscious consumers increasingly want to know where their food originated and whether it was harvested in an environmentally sustainable fashion.

While seafood is a luxury for some, more than one billion people around the world rely on the oceans for their daily nutritional intake. Worldwide, an average of 17 kilograms (kg) of seafood is consumed per person annually, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), making marine wild-capture fisheries one of the most important human food and protein sources. FAO’s charter includes improving global maritime and environmental conditions.

However, these resources are being depleted rapidly due to poor management and overfishing. Globally, more than 30% of fishery catches are illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU). Black-market IUU activities undermine the economic and environmental sustainability of global fisheries and fish stocks and impact all countries.

Shining the light of transparency

A global effort is now under way to increase the transparency of the global fishing fleet to reduce the environmental and economic impacts of IUU fishing activities. The primary focus is on establishing a global record of fishing, which would require a permanent unique vessel identifier (UVI) scheme like the 27-yearold United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) ship identification system that tracks the world’s large merchant vessels

Under the IMO system, all seagoing merchant vessels of 100 gross tons or more, including container ships, tankers, bulk carriers, and cruise liners, are assigned and must display a seven-digit number throughout their service life, from the construction berth to the breaker’s yard. The number remains assigned to that vessel through changes in ownership, name, and flag state. Vessels identified in this manner can be tracked and monitored at sea and in port for regulatory and security oversight.

Originally established and maintained by Lloyd’s Register, the number issuance scheme is now administered for the IMO by IHS Maritime & Trade. It has been accepted as the best available global identification system because each number is connected with data about the vessel and managed by an independent third party that is held responsible for continually updating and verifying data against multiple sources.

Prior to 2014, fishing vessels were exempt from the requirement to be issued an IMO number. In 2013, the IMO General Assembly removed the exemption for fishing vessels of 100 gross tons or greater, effective in 2014. This means that IMO member states, regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), coastal states, and flag states could require an IMO number on fishing vessels in this class. This is the first step in establishing the IMO number as the fundamental building block for transparency of the international fishing fleet.

But there is a long way to go. To date, about 22,000 fishing vessels of 100 tons or more have voluntarily acquired an IMO number. Industry estimates suggest there could be as many as 185,000 fishing vessels of that size and possibly three times as many smaller vessels. IHS plans to help boost the database capture of vessels by linking electronic data exchanges among parties that have their own localized fishing vessel databases, such as tuna RFMOs.

The current lack of a universal IMO numbering scheme for the fishing industry means that the operator of a large, ocean-going fishing vessel can easily alter its identity by filing basic paperwork to change its name, radio call sign, and/or registration with another flag state. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for regulators and law enforcement bodies to monitor fishing catches, vessel movements, fishing rights acquisitions, and other activities for thousands of vessels, especially those whose operators do not wish to be tracked.

Without the transparency and accountability bestowed by an IMO number, fishing vessels are free to engage in a wide range of illegal activities, from direct illegal fishing to associated document fraud, tax evasion and money laundering, trafficking of people, human rights abuses, and illegal working arrangements for crew members.

The absence of a unique identity for fishing vessels has been cited as a major reason that port officials have failed to maintain oversight against illegal fishing operators. Research by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that RFMOs were unable to maintain consistent and accurate records in fishing areas under their purview. Investigators found instances of the same vessel listed under multiple flag states with different names, tonnages, and other specifications and the same radio call sign assigned to many vessels. In other cases, vessels that were reported as sunk were still authorized to fish.

Global fishing stocks under pressure

While fishing has been an important source of food for millennia, only since the advent of onboard refrigeration and large factory ships has it had a globally destructive impact. Today, fishing vessels can deploy lines up to 60 kilometers (km) long, at depths of more than 2,000 meters, according to the Global Ocean Commission Report 2014. Trawlers track fish by sonar, which can cause extensive damage to coral and other fragile habitats, and capture tons of vulnerable deep-sea species for which there is no commercial market.

Fishing fleets have become larger and more advanced, due in part to more than $30 billion in government subsidies, according to the report. The efficiency of these factory fleets has launched a cycle of diminishing returns with larger and more expensive vessels chasing smaller and smaller catches. The Commission estimates the size of the world’s fleet is two-and-a-half times larger than necessary to sustainably catch fish stocks.

According to the FAO, the amount of wild-caught marine fish increased from 3 million metric tons in 1900 to 16.8 million in 1950, reaching a peak of 86.4 million metric tons in 1996. For the past two decades, the catch has remained fairly constant at about 80 million metric tons annually—with the result that 87% of the world’s marine stocks are now fully exploited, over exploited, or depleted. Stocks of some of the largest fish, including tuna and swordfish, are more than 90% below their historical levels and may not be able to recover, according to the Global Ocean Commission Report 2014.

A study by the University of London estimated the economic impact from IUU fishing at $10–23 billion annually, weakening profitability for legally caught seafood, fueling illegal trafficking operations, and undermining economic opportunity for legitimate fishermen.

There is a human cost to IUU fishing as well. Crews on many of these vessels work in understaffed, uninspected, dangerous conditions with little to no regard paid for their hours of service, safety, or the sanitation of their operating environment. The vessels may also be used for other criminal enterprises such as human trafficking, drug smuggling, and terrorist activities.

A crisis of governance

Research by the World Wildlife Fund and Pew Research Foundation indicates that one key factor in fisheries mismanagement is that there is little access to real-time information on fishing fleets, their catches, and their transport routes to ports, processors, and markets. The problem is exacerbated by the difficult nature of physical control of fishing vessels at sea, which are not tracked like aircraft. Vessels often change names, company owners, and flag state—or flag to two or more registries—thus allowing them to avoid what management arrangements do exist. In many respects, the global depletion of fish stocks is a crisis of governance as much as a management failure and represents a serious threat to the rule of law.

Additionally, entities exist that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of lack of transparency. Some rogue flag states that are not signatories to treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement register vessels that fish outside of the management regimes supported by more responsible states.

States control fishing rights access within their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Corrupt officials may sell rights for under-the-table payments, with no public record of which ships have legal rights to fish in a given area. Lack of transparency contributes to corruption and document fraud in licensing of fishing rights, which ultimately contributes to overfishing.

Vessel transparency is essential to identifying the controlling interests of vessels engaged in IUU fishing in order to hold them accountable. For example, the Australian government between 1997 and 2005 apprehended nine vessels engaged in IUU fishing within the Heard and McDonald Island EEZ. However, in all nine court cases, the government was unable to identify or prosecute any of the beneficial owners of the vessels. The vessel and catch were forfeited and the master of the vessel and the fishing master were prosecuted and received nominal fines. In one case, the address of the registered offices of the company that owned the vessel was actually a vacant lot in Moscow.

Proliferation of ID schemes An independent study commissioned by FAO prior to the 2010 technical consultation on the development of a global fishing record concluded that the existing IMO numbering scheme is the most suitable form of unique vessel identifier. Still, there has been a proliferation of competing proposals put forth dating back to 2005.

In that year, the UN’s Rome Declaration of Ministers on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing called for the development of a comprehensive global record of fishing vessels (GRFV) within the FAO. The GRFV proposal for fishing vessels is similar to the existing Equasis system for merchant shipping: a core database of vessel information linked to a range of data sources that will allow users to authenticate the identity of a vessel, its ownership, licensed operations, and performance. Like the IMO numbering scheme, the main source of vessel information into the public Equasis database is administered by IHS.

Likewise, Japan has funded a project at the FAO to create a record for tuna fisheries using a unique identifier. Under the plan, once each source is matched to the database fields from information supplied by owners via national registries, ongoing maintenance is mostly automated. However, there is little provision for making corrections or independent verification of official sources of data. Under this scheme, vessels could remain out of the public domain or conceal ownership records. Also, smaller fishing vessels that typically operate close to shore could be assigned identification numbers from their local state of origin, which would mean they might not be incorporated into the IMO or GRFV databases.

Still, momentum is building to improve the global governance of safety, crew conditions, and fishing operations that will help curtail IUU fishing. One major step was the adoption of the IMO Cape Town Agreement in October 2012 that brings fishing vessels within the regulatory safety regimes that apply to merchant shipping. When they come into force, which is expected within the next two years, new Port State Control inspection measures will require comprehensive information on foreign-flagged vessels and their ownership, which lends itself to the expansion of IMO numbering schemes.

Other soon-to-be enacted FAO provisions require foreign fishing vessels visiting international ports to provide advance notice and request permission for port entry. And ports now have the authority to conduct regular inspections with the intention of preventing illegally caught fish from entering international markets. Also, RFMOs and individual member states can mandate the use of IMO numbers within their systems and certification, which would apply to high-seas vessels. Additionally, in June US President Barack Obama signed a presidential memorandum, “Comprehensive Framework to Combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud,” to unify US efforts against IUU fishing. While the memo doesn’t specifically support a unique vessel identification scheme, it does state that US policy is to strengthen of relevant existing statutes to improve the transparency and traceability of the seafood supply chain. This may include the allocation of IMO numbers to vessels in their local domain.

Building a consensus

In addition to curtailing IUU fishing and other illegal activities, adoption of the IMO number scheme for fishing vessels offers an array of benefits for consumers and the industry. Currently, when vessel information is received through the supply chain, it is usually vessel name, flag, and fishing gear type. The use of IMO numbers will standardize and channel the information transmitted through the supply chain.

The push for traceability has already started with governments, NGOs, and retailers. For example, the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation requires members to purchase seafood only from vessels that have IMO numbers. Major retailers can use IMO numbers within their supply chains to track the origin of seafood from the ocean to the grocery shelf. This information could be used on produce ecolabels as part of a vetting process to confirm that a vessel was fishing legally in a certain geographic area on the date presented on catch certificates.

Although barriers remain to the adoption of IMO numbers as the de facto identification scheme for high-seas fishing vessels, there is a growing industry consensus pushing for its adoption. Using an existing, proven system would encourage coordination among various regulatory schemes and reduce the amount of time required to implement the system worldwide. Through concerted action, IUU fishing can be curbed, with the goal of ending one of the main forces behind the decline of the oceans and the life within.

Alex Gray Product Manager, IHS Maritime & Trade 
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