It can be very difficult to identify a rogue fishing vessel with any degree of certainty. Most sea-going vessels are required to have a unique identifying ‘IMO number’ which is permanently marked on the ship's hull or superstructure, rather like the engine number of a car. Fishing vessels, however, are exempt and there is currently no global record of fishing vessels, making it difficult to keep track of boats which change name, ownership or country of registration (‘flag’).
Some of the more irresponsible flag States, the so-called ‘’Flags of non-compliance’ do not check the history of a vessel applying to reflag, making it easy for a vessel to change identity. This means that it is difficult for coastal states and Regional Fisheries Management Organisations to find out if a vessel applying for a fishing licence has been involved in illegal fishing, and for port authorities to check the legitimacy of vessels wanting to offload fish.
Once suspected of illegal fishing, vessels might change name in order to be able to offload their catch or to continue fishing without being arrested. Alternatively, if a licence is granted to one vessel, for tuna longlining for example, several vessels may take up that identity and use forged copies of the licence to fish themselves, circumventing catch restrictions. One notorious fishing vessel, Thunder, used 8 different names, had 9 owners and was registered with 8 different flag states during its 46 year history.
False AIS Transmissions
Since 2002 ships have been required to make ‘AIS transmissions’ which allows their position to be tracked as a way of avoiding collisions in busy sea lanes, but there is no way of validating AIS data. Ships can easily transmit false GPS co-ordinates, false identities or simply ‘go dark’ and not transmit. So a vessel might use a fake identity while fishing illegally then switch to its real identity when heading for port to offload, concealing its illegal activity and the origin of the fish. According to a Windward report, Chinese fishing vessels account for 44% of all GPS manipulations, and “fish wherever they want”.
In March 2013 a tuna long-liner, the ‘Naham-4’, was detained in Cape Town after inspectors became suspicious when they found a second faded name, ‘Der Horng 569’ painted on the hull. FISH-i Africa were also investigating the Naham-4 as part of a routine check of vessels operating in the Western Indian Ocean and a comparison of photographs of vessels bearing that name showed that there were as many as five vessels going by the same name. The vessel was seized and eventually sold, only to be arrested once again in March 2016 (as the Nessa 7) for fishing illegally in Mozambican waters.
Read the full case study: The Mystery of the Naham-4
The way forward
• The FAO is working towards a global record of fishing vessels, although the issue of long-term funding still needs to be resolved.
• Since December 2013 fishing vessels have been able to obtain IMO numbers voluntarily; so far less than 15% of the estimated 185,600 fishing vessels over 100 GT or 24m have done so.
• IMO numbers are now mandatory for EU vessels over 100 GT or 24m length operating in EU waters and for EU vessels over 15m length operating elsewhere.
• Cooperation and sharing of information and intelligence between countries and RFMOs is essential to tackle this global problem. FISH-i Africa shows how this can work.
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