At-sea transhipments are widely recognized as one of the major missing links to understand where illegally caught fish finds its way to the market and thus a key cause of lack of transparency in global fisheries. Unauthorised transhipment enables illegal operators to avoid port controls and to maximize profits.

Like high seas fishing operations in all the world’s oceans, it’s more efficient for vessels catching high-value fish like tunas to stay out at sea for as long as possible. Travelling to and from port to offload their catch takes up valuable time (and fuel) that could be used for fishing. So it’s common practice for refrigerated transport vessels, commonly referred to as ‘reefers’ to do the fetching and carrying for them. It’s a highly organised system – reefers arrive at a pre-arranged time and place, bringing supplies of fuel, food, bait and even a change of crew, and take away the catch – boxes of frozen fish destined for foreign markets across the globe. This practice is known as transhipment.

It’s highly efficient, but difficult to control. If a fishing vessel offloads or tranships in port it can be inspected to ensure its catch was legally caught, but on the high seas this is difficult and costly to do, and out of the question for most developing countries. Illegal fishers take advantage of this and use transhipment to ‘launder’ illegally caught fish; by mixing illegal and legal fish the illegal fish takes on the documentation of the legal fish. Also, because reefers do not fish, they are often exempt from catch documentation and monitoring, creating a missing link in the chain of custody from vessel to plate.

In Ghana an artisanal form of transhipping, known as ‘Saiko fishing’ is conducted by local fishers who go out in canoes to meet foreign IUU vessels and transport boxes of frozen fish to processors who wait on shore. This practice, illegal under Ghanaian fisheries legislation, is driven in part by the depletion of fish stocks in the artisanal fishing zone resulting from this IUU fishing, and its consequences to the local economy, driving artisanal fishers to seek alternative forms of income generation like Saiko fishing – a vicious cycle.

Transhipment at sea can also result in labour and human rights violations as it enables fishing vessels to remain at sea for months or even years at a time, trapping crew members on board and leaving them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. According to a UNODC report it is also used as a means of trafficking drugs in West Africa.

Transhipment at sea is one of the major missing links in understanding how illegally caught fish finds its way to the markets and thus how to fight this illegal trade. The FAO recommends:

  • Coastal countries should consider requiring that all transshipments take place in port or, at a minimum, require that transhipment at sea is done in accordance with proper controls and at locations where inspectors can be present to check the details of the fish being transshipped.
  • Flag States should consider prohibiting transshipment of fish at sea or at a minimum, require prior authorization for transshipment at sea and reporting of catch information.
  • Regional Fisheries Mangement Organisations (RFMOs) should adopt port inspection schemes and restrictions on transhipment at sea.
  • Flag States should require their vessels to use a Vessel Monitoring System, a satellite-based tracking system which provides real-time information on vessel identity and activity.

Stop Illegal Fishing, through the FISH-i Africa Task Force that operates in the Western Indian Ocean, has been working to better understand the use of illegal transhipment, the implications for illegal fishing operations and how illegal fish is fed into the supply chain. Finding out who is involved and what networks are operating to allow them to happen under the radar of control and enforcement are critical in bringing this practice to an end.


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