Tag Archives: illegal fishing

Modern Slavery and the Collapse of Fisheries

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for a staggering 20-50% of the global catch. It is one reason fish stocks are plummeting: just a fifth of commercial species are sustainably fished. Illegal operators rob mostly poor coastal states of over $20bn a year and threaten the livelihoods of millions of small fishermen. A huge amount of illicit fishing happens on licensed boats, too. They might catch more than their quota, or falsely declare their catch as abundant albacore tuna instead of the more valuable bigeye. In port fisheries inspectors are always overstretched. If an operator is caught, for instance, fishing with too fine a net, the fine and confiscation are seen as a cost of doing business. Many pay up and head straight back out to sea.

The damage from illicit fishing goes well beyond fish stocks. Operators committing one kind of crime are likely to be committing others, too—cutting the fins off sharks, or even running guns or drugs. Many are also abusing their crews… A lot of them are in debt bondage…. Unscrupulous captains buy and sell these men and boys like chattel

Too often, the ultimate beneficiaries of this trade are hard to hook because they hide behind brass-plate companies and murky joint ventures. Pursuing them requires the same kind of sleuthing involved in busting criminal syndicates. An initiative led by Norway to go after transnational-fisheries crime is gaining support. Much more cross-border co-operation is needed.

At sea, technology can help. Electronic monitoring promises a technological revolution on board—Australian and American fleets are leading the way. Cameras combined with machine learning can spot suspicious behavior and even identify illicit species being brought on board…. Equally, national regulators should set basic labor standards at sea. If countries fail to follow the rules, coastal states should bar their fishing fleets from their waters. Fish-eating nations should allow imports only from responsible fleets.

Above all, governments should agree at the World Trade Organization to scrap the subsidies that promote overfishing. Of the $35bn a year lavished on the industry, about $22bn helps destroy fish stocks, mainly by making fuel too cheap. Do away with subsidies and forced labor, and half of high-seas fishing would no longer be profitable. Nor would that of China’s environmentally devastating bottom-trawling off the west African coast. 

Excerpt from Monsters of the deep: Illicit fishing devastates the seas and abuses crews, Economist, Oct., 22, 2020

What really happens in the seas? GlobalFishing Watch, Sea Shepherd, Trygg Mat Tracking

Just Forbid It – Fishing: Fishing and Marine Protected Areas

Fish, whether wild caught or farmed, now make up nearly a fifth of the animal protein that human beings eat….In this context, running the world’s fisheries efficiently might seem a sensible idea. In practice, that rarely happens. Even well-governed coastal countries often pander to their fishing lobbies by setting quotas which give little respite to battered piscine populations. Those with weak or corrupt governments may not even bother with this. Deals abound that permit outsiders legal but often badly monitored access to such countries’ waters. And many rogue vessels simply enter other people’s fishing grounds and steal their contents.

There may be a way to improve the supply side: increase the area where fishing is forbidden altogether.  This paradoxical approach, which involves the creation of so-called marine protected areas (MPAs), has already been demonstrated on several occasions to work locally. A new study “A global network of marine protected areas for food “in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…explores the idea of extending MPAs elsewhere. If the right extensions are picked designating a mere 5% more of the world’s oceans as MPAs—which would triple the area protected—could increase the future global catch of the 811 species they looked at by more than 20%. That corresponds to an extra 10m tonnes of food a year.

The idea that restricting fishing would permit more fish to be caught may seem counterintuitive, but the logic is simple. Fish in MPAs can grow larger than those at constant risk of being pulled from the ocean. Larger fish produce more eggs. More eggs mean more fry. Many of these youngsters then grow up and move out of the safe zone, thus becoming available to catch in adjoining areas where fishing is permitted…

MPAs are especially beneficial for the worst-managed areas, most of which are tropical—and in particular for overfished species…They also have the virtue of simplicity. The setting of quotas is open to pressure to overestimate of how many fish can safely be caught…This is difficult enough for countries with well-developed fisheries-research establishments. For those without such it is little more than guesswork…Setting the rules for an MPA is, by contrast, easy. You stick up a metaphorical sign that says, “No fishing”. Knowing who is breaking the rules is easy, too. If your gear is in the water, you are fishing illegally.

Excerpt from Fishing: Stopping some fishing would increase overall catches. Economist, Oct. 31, 2020

What Shrimp and Beef Have in Common? carbon footprint

Shrimp farms tend to occupy coastal land that used to be covered in mangroves. Draining mangrove swamps to make way for aquaculture is even more harmful to the atmosphere than felling rainforest to provide pasture for cattle. A study conducted in 2017 by cifor, a research institute, found that in both these instances, by far the biggest contribution to the carbon footprint of the resulting beef or shrimp came from the clearing of the land. As a result, CIFOR concluded, a kilo of farmed shrimp was responsible for almost four times the greenhouse-gas emissions of a kilo of beef

Eating wild shrimp is not much better: catches are declining around the world as a result of overfishing. Trawlers can pull as much as 20kg of by-catch from the sea for every kilo of shrimp. And reports abound of the appalling treatment of workers on shrimp-fishing vessels, including human-trafficking and child labour. When UN investigators interviewed a sample of Cambodians who had escaped virtual slavery on Thai fishing boats, 59% of them reported seeing fellow crew-members murdered by the captain.


Most of the world’s shrimp and prawns come from Asia. The continent accounts for 85% of the farmed sort and 74% of the wild catch. Global sales were around $45bn in 2018 and are thought to be growing by about 5% a year. But the industry is controversial, not just because of its part in global warming. Razing mangroves also leaves coastal regions vulnerable to flooding. Many shrimp farms are unsanitary; ponds often have to be abandoned after a few years because of problems with disease and pollution.

All this has given one Singaporean company a brain wave. “Farmed shrimps are often bred in overcrowded conditions and literally swimming in sewage water. We want to disrupt that—to empower farmers with technology that is cleaner and more efficient,” says Sandhya Sriram, one of the founders of Shiok Meats. The firm aims to grow artificial shrimp, much as some Western firms are seeking to create beef without cows. The process involves propagating shrimp cells in a nutrient-rich solution. Ms Sriram likens it to a brewery, disdaining the phrase “lab-grown”….The hitch is that producing shrimp in this way currently costs $5,000 a kilo.

Excerpts from How artificial shrimps could change the world, Economist, Feb. 28, 2020

Fishing in the Arctic: Banned

The Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) in Ilulissat, Greenland was adopted on October 3, 2018.  The historic agreement represents a collaborative and precautionary approach by ten countries to the management of high seas fish stocks in the Central Arctic Ocean. The agreement covers approximately 2.8 million square kilometers, an area roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea.

Ice has traditionally covered the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean year-round. Recently, the melting of Arctic sea ice has left large areas of the high seas uncovered for much of the year. The Agreement bars unregulated fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean for 16 years and establishes a joint program of scientific research and monitoring to gain a better understanding of Arctic Ocean ecosystems. It also authorizes vessels to conduct commercial fishing in the CAO only after international mechanisms are in place to manage any such fishing. This effort marks the first time an international agreement of this magnitude has been proactively reached before any commercial fishing has taken place in a high seas area.

Signatories include the United States, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Kingdom of Norway, the People’s Republic of China, and the Russian Federation.

Excerpt from U.S. Signs Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Commercial Fishing on the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean, NOAA Press Release, Oct. 3, 2018

Stop it: Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing

Large ships are supposed, by international agreement, to be fitted with what is known as the Automatic Identification System (AIS), and to keep it on all the time. Arrangements for small ones vary from country to country, but most require some sort of beacon to be fitted to craft sailing in their waters.

The beacons’ main purpose is to avoid collisions. But monitoring them can also give away who is fishing nefariously, if you develop the software to sift through masses of location data looking for patterns. Beacon-watching has also helped identify hot spots for the transfer of catches at sea from IUU fishing boats to refrigerated cargo vessels, a practice which conceals the origin of a catch. Transshipment hotspots have been identified in this way off west Africa and Russia, and in the tropical Pacific. But beacons can be (and are) switched off.

Global Fishing Watch—a collaboration between Oceana, a conservation group, Google, a division of Alphabet, and Sky Truth, a charity that uses remote sensing to monitor environmental problems—has turned to America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for help. NOAA has long collected satellite data on clouds. These are available to outsiders at no cost. The agency’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite consists of two sensors, each mounted on a different satellite. Between them, these sensors photograph the entire planet every 24 hours. Though their target is cloud cover, they can also see small, bright sources of light. Some of these give away the activities of fishermen. Many marine species are attracted to light, so it is common practice to shine floodlights into the water.

To find those illegals who do not so conveniently illuminate their activities Global Fishing Watch turns to satellite radar data. These are gathered mainly by private companies for sale to customers who want to do things like monitor the logging of forests. Global Fishing Watch, too, has to pay for them. Radar data have proved themselves useful, though. In 2016, for example, radar turned up a fleet of ships off the coast of Chile that had their AIS turned off…. The European Union’s Sentinel satellites now provide radar data free of charge. Global Fishing Watch is working on an automated vessel-detection system that uses these data.

Better detection would certainly help limit IUU fishing. The Port State Measures Agreement, introduced in 2016 and now ratified by 55 countries, is supposed to stop vessels engaged in such fishing from landing their catches. But ports can act against a vessel only if they know what it has been up to. The technology being developed by Global Fishing Watch makes it possible to report offenders quickly, thus giving port authorities time to act.

The future, moreover, looks brighter still—or dimmer, if you are an illicit fisherman. CubeSats, satellites the size of a loaf of bread, are lowering the cost of Earth observation.  making it feasible to track all boats continuously.

Excerpts from Netting the Crooks: Curbing Illegal Fishing, Economist,  Sept. 8, 2018

Fish Poachers in Africa

In Sierra Leone nearly half the population does not have enough to eat, and fish make up most of what little protein people get. But the country’s once-plentiful shoals, combined with its weak government, have lured a flotilla of unscrupulous foreign trawlers to its waters. Most of the trawlers fly Chinese flags, though dozens also sail from South Korea, Italy, Guinea and Russia. Their combined catch is pushing Sierra Leone’s fisheries to the brink of collapse.

Sierra Leone is not alone in facing this crisis. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 90% of the world’s fisheries are dangerously overexploited. The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, a think-tank funded by America’s defence department, reckons that about a quarter of fish caught off Africa’s shores are taken illegally.

Excerpt from Poachers afloat: Why Sierra Leone is running out of fish, Economist, Dec. 16, 2017

Data Against Fish Poachers

Australia is at the forefront of efforts to combat poaching. Its patrol ships have chased illegal trawlers almost as far as South Africa, a distance of 4,600 miles, to stop the plunder of prized Patagonian toothfish—sold in the U.S. as Chilean sea bass.  Australian government scientists and Vulcan Inc., Mr. Allen’s private company, have developed a notification system that alerts authorities when suspected pirate vessels from West Africa arrive at ports on remote Pacific islands and South America.

The system relies on anticollision transponders installed on nearly all oceangoing craft as a requirement under maritime law. These devices are detectable by satellite.  A statistical model helps identify vessels whose transponders have been intentionally shut off. Other data identifies fishing boats that are loitering in risk areas, such as near national maritime boundaries…

“On one hand you can’t see them [if their transponder is switched off], but on the other it means they’ve just flagged themselves as avoiding surveillance, and as a risk indicator, that’s at the top of the list,” he said…

And a third of all fish sold in the U.S. is believed to be caught illegally. Seafood consumption in wealthy nations has soared in recent decades, increasing reliance on imports. Between 1980 and 2014, U.S. seafood consumption rose 60%, with imports now meeting 90% of the demand, according to Global Fishing Watch and the World Wildlife Fund….

Illegal fishing causes commercial losses of up to $23 billion a year world-wide, according to the U.N….

The researchers’ satellite-based tracking tool will begin operating in October 2017 and will be free to access. It was set up in response to a treaty aimed at eradicating illegal fishing that came into force on June 2016.The Agreement on Port State Measures…

China is the world’s largest seafood producer, followed by Indonesia, the U.S. and Russia. The most critical area for poaching is off the coast of West Africa, where illegal, unauthorized and unregulated fishing accounts an estimated 40% of fish caught, according to the World Ocean Review. Other areas of concern include the western and southern Pacific and the southwest Atlantic. Illegal trawlers contribute to overfishing that threatens marine ecosystems and food security in some of the poorest countries.

Last year, Argentina’s coast guard opened fire on and sank a Chinese trawler that was fishing illegally in its waters. South Korea’s coast guard fired on Chinese poachers several months later.  Australian authorities have said geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, a rich fishing ground, may be driving more illegal fishing vessels into the South Pacific from China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Excerpts from Trawling Scientists Find a Better Way to Reel In Illegal Fishing, Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2017

Endangered Fish as Delicacy

The most recent estimate puts the remaining numbers of vaquita, a porpoise found only in the waters of the Sea of Cortés, Mexico, at just 60, down from 100 two years ago…. The vaquita has been a victim of the shrimp and totoaba fisheries, showing up as bycatch in gillnets.

The totoaba is also an endangered species but its swim bladder is a delicacy in China, selling for as much as US $5,000 per kilogram in the U.S. and a great deal more in China. The matter has been taken up by Agriculture Secretary José Calzada Rovirosa with Chinese officials in an effort to stop the illegal consumption of the bladders.  Vaquitas are not only being killed by totoaba fishing. When illegal fishermen are pursued by the Mexican Navy, they often cut their nets and set them adrift, becoming an additional threat to the porpoise.

Removing these “ghost nets” will be one of the steps taken before the implementation of an assisted breeding program, said marine mammal expert Lorenzo Rojas Bracho from the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change.

There are doubts about the feasibility of a breeding program as well as concerns about the risk. “We have no idea whether it is feasible to find, capture and maintain vaquitas in captivity much less whether they will reproduce,” said vaquita expert Barbara Taylor of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Excerpt from Assisted breeding for endangered vaquita?, Mexico News Daily, June 28, 2016

How to Catch Illegal Fishers: port state measures

The Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (the Agreement)  entered into force on June 5, 2016.  The main purpose of the Agreement is to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing through the implementation of robust port State measures. The Agreement envisages that parties, in their capacities as port States, will apply the Agreement in an effective manner to foreign vessels when seeking entry to ports or while they are in port. …

The Agreement provides an opportunity for port States to check and verify that vessels not flying their flags and that seek permission to enter their ports, or that are already in their ports, have not engaged in IUU fishing.  The Agreement also enhances flag States control over vessels as the Agreement requires the flag State to take certain actions, at the request of the port State, or when vessels flying their flag are determined to have been involved in IUU fishing….

Furthermore, the Agreement’s seeks to prevent the occurrence of so-called ports of non-compliance (formerly known as ports of convenience). Countries operating ports of non compliance do not regulate effectively the fishing and fishing-related activities that take place in the ports, including determining whether IUU-caught fish are landed, transshipped, processed and sold in the ports. Ratifying and acceding to the Agreement and implementing its measures robustly will reduce the number of ports of non compliance and opportunities for vessels to dispose of IUU-caught fish with relative ease. Port state measures are a cost-effective tool in ensuring compliance with national law and regional conservation and management measures adopted by RFMOs. This is because port States do not have to expend time, effort and resources in monitoring, pursuing and inspecting vessels at sea. Port inspections and controls are very much cheaper and safer than alternative, more conventional air and surface compliance tools. Port State measures, if used in conjunction with catch documentation schemes, have the potential to be one of the most cost-effective and efficient means of combating IUU fishing.

The Agreement’s most potent effect in terms of its potential to curb IUU fishing is that through the implementation of its provisions, including those relating to denial of access to ports, port inspections, prohibition of landing, and detention and sanction, can prevent fish caught from IUU fishing activities from reaching national and international markets. By making it more difficult to market fish through the application of port State measures, the economic incentive to engage in IUU fishing is reduced. In addition, many countries have also decided to prohibit trade with countries that do not have port state measures in place.

Excerpt from Food and Agriculture Organization  FAO Website.

Blowing up Fishing Boats: illegal fishing

On April 5th, 2016, Indonesia’s maritime-affairs minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, watched live feed from seven different places as 23 Malaysian and Vietnamese trawlers, seized for illegal fishing in Indonesian waters, were blown to smithereens…

Indonesia is already seething with anger at China’s reaction to an incident last month in which a Chinese coastguard cutter rammed free a Chinese fishing boat as the Indonesian authorities were towing it to port, having just caught it poaching in waters off Indonesia’s Natuna islands…. In fact, it seems almost certain. Indonesia’s possession of the Natunas is undisputed, and under international law the Chinese were well inside its “exclusive economic zone”. Yet China defended the crew by claiming they were in waters that were “traditional Chinese fishing grounds”. The waters are inside the sweeping “nine-dash line” that China draws on its maps (and even passports) to mark its claim over almost the entire South China Sea.

Chinese fishermen have been detained in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of whose maritime claims overlap with or mirror China’s. But it is not just in contested waters that they get into trouble. Chinese have also been detained in the Russian Far East, North Korea and Sri Lanka in recent years. In 2011 a Chinese fisherman stabbed a South Korean coastguard to death. The next year one was killed by the police in Palau, a tiny Pacific republic. Farther afield, on December of 2015 two dozen African countries called on China to stop illegal fishing off west Africa. And on April 2016 our Chinese fishermen were freed from detention in Argentina.

China’s government sees food security as a priority and fishing as a good source of jobs (14m of them). In 2013 the president, Xi Jinping, visited Tanmen, a fishing port on the southern island of Hainan, and urged fishermen there to “build bigger ships and venture even farther into the oceans and catch bigger fish.” The government provides subsidies for new boats, fuel and navigation aids….Fishing can have strategic uses. Like China’s splurge on building artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea, the habitual presence of big numbers of Chinese boats in disputed waters…underpins the notion that China has “traditional” claims. And at times fishermen have indeed been used to advance those claims. In 1974 armed fishing trawlers acted as China’s advance guard as it seized the southern part of the Paracel archipelago from the regime of the former South Vietnam. Similar tactics worked in driving the Philippines out of two other parts of the South China Sea: Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

Giving state backing to poaching or to fishing in contested waters is a dangerous ploy, however. The grave rise in tension with Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands in the East China Sea dates back to September 2010, when a Chinese trawler, apprehended for illegal fishing, rammed a Japanese coastguard vessel. As the seas become more militarised, the risks of clashes mount. To date, the Chinese navy has rarely been involved. But some Chinese fishing ports have expanded their “maritime militias”—ie, armed civilian vessels—and both China and other coastguards are becoming better armed.

Excerpts from Trawling for trouble: Why do Chinese fishermen keep getting arrested, Economist,  Apr. 16, 2016, at 34

Illegal Fishing and Failed States

Mauritania has some of West Africa’s richest fishing waters yet overfishing by foreign trawlers means hundreds of pirogues, or wooden canoes used by small-scale fishermen, must go further out to sea to net ever smaller catches.  Fishing is an important part of the mostly desert country’s economy, accounting for seven percent of gross domestic product and providing about 40,000 jobs, according to the World Bank…

West Africa alone loses at least $1.3 billion a year from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, according to a 2014 report by the Africa Progress Panel, which campaigns for sustainable development in Africa.Widespread corruption and few resources for enforcement mean huge foreign trawlers often venture into areas near the coast which are reserved for artisanal fishermen.  This allows them to drag off tonnes of catch in waters rich in snapper, sardines, mackerel and shrimp – putting the livelihoods and food security of millions of locals at risk…One way of improving governance is for more information to be disclosed on the quotas being sold to foreign fishing firms and how licensing agreements are being implemented,..

[T]he Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) [is] a pioneering project that sets standards for companies to publish what they pay for oil, gas and minerals and for governments to disclose what they receive.  Modelled on EITI, a Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FITI) is in the works with Mauritania due to announce this week that it has set up a group of government officials, industry figures and campaigners to promote transparency in fisheries contracts….

“Transparency is just one component,” said Andre Standing, who works for the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements.”A lot depends on how people are able to use that information and whether they can put pressure on governments and companies to change behaviours where needs be,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Excerpts from Mauritania’s depleted seas highlight need for fishing transparency, Reuters, Feb. 1, 2015

Slavery and the Fishing Industry

Maung Toe, an immigrant from Myanmar, laboured unpaid for six months on a Thai ship fishing illegally in Indonesian waters…naval patrols came close, but the crew would evade them. He had been forced aboard at gunpoint and sold by a broker to the captain for $900. It was the first time he had ever seen the sea.

Mr Maung’s story is told by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a charity, in a recent study of trafficking and piracy in Thailand’s seafood industry. The country hosts tens of thousands of trafficking victims, by conservative estimates, many from Myanmar, as well as from Cambodia and Bangladesh. Many of them sweat on trawlers or in vast fish-processing plants. Some were duped by recruitment agents; a few were kidnapped. Others are migrants who were waylaid by traffickers while travelling through Thailand.

Overfishing is partly to blame. Average catches in Thai waters have fallen by 86% since the industry’s large expansion in the 1960s. Such meagre pickings have driven local workers out of the industry and encouraged captains to seek ultra-cheap alternatives. Boats now fish farther afield and stay at sea for months at a time, making slavery harder to spot.

International pressure is mounting. The American government ranks Thailand among the least effective of all countries in fighting trafficking, along with Iran, North Korea and Syria. Food firms in Europe and North America—who together purchase about a third of Thailand’s fish exports—seem concerned. Last year the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, promised tougher enforcement. At a press conference this month, the authorities said they had identified nearly 600 trafficking victims in 2014.

But cynics worry that the military government in power since a coup last May will turn a blind eye again once the immediate threat to exports fades. Frank discussion of the business seems to be discouraged. Two journalists in Phuket—an Australian and a Thai—may face a defamation trial for republishing sentences from a Reuters article alleging that navy personnel had helped traffickers. In January  2015 campaigners forced the government to drop a plan to put convicts to work on fishing boats—a policy probably intended to dampen demand for bonded labour. A broader shift towards respecting human rights seems some way off.

Excerpts, Slavery and seafood: Here be monsters, Economist, Mar. 14, 2015, at 62

Catching Illegal Fishers

From INTERPOL: Between 6 and 13 January, 2005 a Royal New Zealand Naval Patrol spotted the vessels – the Yongding, the Kunlun and the Songhua – hauling gill nets laden with toothfish in an area regulated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) where such fishing methods are prohibited.

——

The Pew Charitable Trusts, an American research group… reckons that around one fish in five sold in restaurants or shops has been caught outside the law. That may amount to 26m tonnes of them every year, worth more than $23 billion. This illegal trade, though not the only cause of overfishing, is an important one…

The new monitoring system has been developed by the Satellite Applications Catapult, a British government-backed innovation centre based at Harwell, near Oxford, in collaboration with Pew. In essence, it is a big-data project, pulling together and cross-checking information on tens of thousands of fishing boats operating around the world. At its heart is what its developers call a virtual watch room, which resembles the control centre for a space mission. A giant video wall displays a map of the world, showing clusters of lighted dots, each representing a fishing boat.

The data used to draw this map come from various sources, the most important of which are ships’ automatic identification systems (AIS). These are like the transponders carried by aircraft. They broadcast a vessel’s identity, position and other information to nearby ships and coastal stations, and also to satellites. An AIS is mandatory for all commercial vessels, fishing boats included, with a gross tonnage of more than 300. Such boats are also required, in many cases, to carry a second device, known as a VMS (vessel monitoring system). This transmits similar data directly to the authorities who control the waters in which the vessel is fishing, and carrying it is a condition of a boat’s licence to fish there. Enforcement of the AIS regime is patchy, and captains do sometimes have what they feel is a legitimate reason for turning it off, in order not to alert other boats in the area to profitable shoals. But the VMS transmits only to officialdom, so there can be no excuse for disabling it. Switching off either system will alert the watch room to potential shenanigans.

The watch room first filters vessels it believes are fishing from others that are not. It does this by looking at, for example, which boats are in areas where fish congregate. It then tracks these boats using a series of algorithms that trigger an alert if, say, a vessel enters a marine conservation area and slows to fishing speed, or goes “dark” by turning off its identification systems. Operators can then zoom in on the vessel and request further information to find out what is going on. Satellites armed with synthetic-aperture radar can detect a vessel’s position regardless of weather conditions. This means that even if a ship has gone dark, its fishing pattern can be logged. Zigzagging, for example, suggests it is long-lining for tuna. When the weather is set fair, this radar information can be supplemented by high-resolution satellite photographs. Such images mean, for instance, that what purports to be a merchant ship can be fingered as a transshipment vessel by watching fishing boats transfer their illicit catch to it.

As powerful as the watch room is, though, its success will depend on governments, fishing authorities and industry adopting the technology and working together, says Commander Tony Long, a 27-year veteran of the Royal Navy who is the director of Pew’s illegal-fishing project. Those authorities need to make sure AIS and VMS systems are not just fitted, but are used correctly and not tampered with. This should get easier as the cost of the technology falls.

Enforcing the use of an identification number that stays with a ship throughout its life, even if it changes hands or country of registration, is also necessary. An exemption for fishing boats ended in 2013, but the numbering is still not universally applied. Signatories to a treaty agreed in 2009, to make ports exert stricter controls on foreign-flagged fishing vessels, also need to act. Fishermen seek out ports with lax regulations to land illegal catches….

The watch room will also allow the effective monitoring of marine reserves around small island states that do not have the resources to do it for themselves. The first test of this approach could be to regulate a reserve of 836,000 square kilometres around the Pitcairn Islands group, a British territory in the middle of the South Pacific with only a few dozen inhabitants.

The watch-room system is, moreover, capable of enlargement as new information sources are developed. One such may be nanosats. These are satellites, a few centimetres across, that can be launched in swarms to increase the number of electronic eyes in the sky while simultaneously reducing costs. Closer to the surface, unmanned drones can do the same.

Combating illegal fishing: Dragnet, Economist, Jan 24, 2015, at 70

Palau Fights Big Fishing Countries

The traditional prescription for an ailing reef is a fishing ban called a bul. Local chiefs may declare a bul to rest a busy fishing spot or protect endangered sea turtles. Now Palau’s president has a more drastic plan. He proposes a complete ban on commercial fishing—a bul to turn the 600,000 square kilometres (232,000 square miles) of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) into a marine reserve the size of Ukraine. Locals could still fish close to shore, but not for export. The ban would last until world leaders implement programmes “to reverse the devastation to our oceans and seas”, Palau’s president, Tommy Remengesau, recently told the United Nations. Environmentalists have rallied to his cause. Such reserves are usually declared by countries with fishing grounds and cash to spare. Palau has a population of 20,000 and a GDP of $246m. I

A total ban might hurt Palau, which is part of Micronesia, 800km (500 miles) east of the Philippines. Though small, its waters are full of bigeye and yellowfin tuna. Japanese and Taiwanese boats pay to fish there, helping Palau earn $5m in revenue from fishing taxes and licensing fees in 2013. That is a lot for a microstate with an annual government budget of only $70m. And fishing revenues have been growing thanks to a regional negotiating block. Together, eight remote Pacific states control 14m square km of tuna-rich waters. They have forced Asian and American ships into a cap-and-trade scheme that boosts access fees by limiting total fishing days. In an age of collapsing fish stocks, the relative health of fisheries in the western Pacific has given island states a rare measure of economic influence. Palau’s bet, however, is that its fish are worth more in the water than out. Mr Remengesau doubts that small islands will ever capture more than “a drop” of a tuna fishery worth billions but dominated by foreign fleets. Ecotourism, meanwhile, accounts for about half of Palau’s GDP. Palau’s leaders hope that a national marine reserve will lure enough tourists to offset lost fishing revenue….

Palau has only one boat capable of patrolling its EEZ. Many tuna bandits escape detection. Technology could help: last year the country tested surveillance drones. The problem is money. Japan and America have helped fund enforcement. Both have an interest because of their fishing deals with Palau. But they may not want to fund a system that locks them out of its waters altogether,

Marine protection in the Pacific: No bul, Economist, June 7,  2014, at 46

Marine Protected Areas: PIPA, Kiribati

After years of claiming untruthfully that the world’s most fished marine protected area was “off limits to fishing and other extractive uses,” President Anote Tong of the Pacific island state of Kiribati and his cabinet have voted to close it to all commercial fishing by the end of the year.  The action, if implemented, would allow populations of tuna and other fish depleted by excessive fishing to return to natural levels in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a patch of ocean the size of California studded with pristine, uninhabited atolls.

The move comes at a time global fish populations are steadily declining as increasingly efficient vessels are able to extract them wholesale from ever-more-remote and deep waters around the globe.  While no-take zones of comparative size exist in Hawaii, the Chagos Islands and the Coral Sea, none are as rich in marine life, making this potentially the most effective marine reserve in the world.,,,

In a speech still he gave at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit two years ago still visible on Youtube, Tong mentions “the initiative of my country in closing off 400,000 square kilometres of our [waters] from commercial fishing activities,” calling it “our contribution to global ocean conservation efforts.”

In fact, when PIPA was created, only in the three percent of the reserve that’s around the islands, where virtually no fishing was going on, fishing was banned. In the rest of the reserve, the catch increased, reaching 50,000 tonnes in 2012 – an unheard-of amount in any protected area.

Christopher Pala, Kiribati Bans Fishing in Crucial Marine Sanctuary, IPS, May 15, 2014