CEO Note: Tracking Suspected Vessel Rendezvous at Sea | Oceana
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At the recent Economist World Ocean Summit in Bali, Indonesia, Oceana released a new report that tracks thousands of possible rendezvous between refrigerated cargo vessels and commercial fishing ships. This report highlights the risks that this practice, known as transshipment or transshipping, poses to healthy oceans.

Oceana uses Global Fishing Watch – launched last year with SkyTruth and Google – to analyze the behavior of more than 35,000 commercial fishing vessels in the ocean. By adding data showing refrigerated cargo vessels, we can now see and report on their likely rendezvous with commercial fishing vessels at sea. These rendezvous allow for the transfer of cargo, fuel, provisions, fish catch, crew or gear from one vessel to another. When transshipping takes place at sea, it can allow fishing vessels to avoid scrutiny at port and conceal suspicious activities like illegal fishing.

Oceana's report is based on a new dataset released by Global Fishing Watch, which identified 5,065 likely transshipping events between the largest commercial fishing vessels and refrigerated cargo vessels (called "reefers") between 2012 and 2016. Using this data, we identified areas of the ocean which appear to be especially vulnerable to suspected transshipping activities. Four key hotspots stood out: Russia's Sea of Okhotsk, the high seas waters of the Barents Sea, and areas just outside the national waters of Peru and Argentina.

In our analysis, we found that the majority of likely transshipping events were detected in waters under national jurisdiction, while about 40 percent occurred on the high seas, beyond country boundaries. Interestingly, Russian-flagged fishing vessels ranked highest for the average number of suspected at-sea transshipping events per vessel, and almost 50 percent of all likely transshipping events occurred within Russian waters.

It is important for us to understand the nature and location of these activities because transshipment at sea can enable the distribution of illegally caught fish, undermining laws and regulations designed to manage fisheries responsibly. Reefers are able to rendezvous with multiple fishing vessels at sea. As transshipment occurs, each vessel's catch is stored in large, refrigerated holds, where catch from multiple vessels can often become combined. This practice facilitates illegal fish laundering – mixing legally and illegally caught fish together and selling the whole catch as legal.

This sort of illegal fishing can have severe repercussions. We identified 112 likely transshipping events in the waters of Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest countries in the world. Illegal fishing is frequent there; it has been estimated that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for a loss of about US$338 million annually. Approximately 120,000 people – mostly women – work in the artisanal or subsistence fishing sector in Guinea-Bissau. These people rely on fish for their livelihoods. Stopping illegal fishing means protecting resources vital to their survival.

Because reefers can provide fuel, provisions and crew to the ships they service, transshipment can also enable fishing fleets to remain at sea months or more than a year without returning to port. For example, Oceana identified two fishing vessels that remained at sea for more than 500 days in 2015 and 2016. Extensive time at sea reduces the ability of governments and management organizations to monitor or control these ships' activities. Unfortunately, there has been evidence that some fleets relying on at-sea transshipment are exploiting their workers, keeping them at sea for extended periods of time and using transshipment for human trafficking.

This report includes recommendations for policies that will help reduce illegal fishing and ensure that our seafood is responsibly caught and traceable. These measures include wider implementation of vessel monitoring systems and improved global catch documentation. Together, these policies will help empower governments to enforce fishing laws effectively. And in the long run, these are necessary steps toward a healthy, well-managed ocean.

You can read the full report here.