A new study sheds light on widespread illegal fishing by “dark fleets” – vessels that do not publicly broadcast their location or appear in public monitoring systems – in the waters between the Koreas, Japan, and Russia. This ground-breaking report – which clearly reveals the extent and problem of illegal fishing – was only made possible by Global Fishing Watch, founded in 2015 by Oceana in partnership with Google and SkyTruth.
The study, Illuminating Dark Fishing Fleets in North Korea, published in the prestigious journal Science, was authored by Global Fishing Watch and a group of renowned international research organizations. This effort found widespread illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in North Korean waters, likely in violation of United Nations sanctions. More than 900 vessels of Chinese origin in 2017, and 700 in 2018, probably caught almost as much Pacific flying squid as Japan and South Korea combined – more than 160,000 metric tons worth over $440 million.
Global Fishing Watch uncovered this illegal fishing by using an unprecedented combination of satellite technologies and machine learning. Radar capable of penetrating cloud cover and high-resolution optical imagery provided visuals of the vessels during the day, and night-time optical imagery (VIIRS) picked up the presence of the squid fishing vessels that use lights to attract and help catch the squid and often conduct operations at night. This data was then cross-checked with available Automatic Identification System (AIS) data – a collision avoidance system that constantly transmits a vessel’s location at sea – to identify the vessels’ home port and destination.
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing causes billions of dollars in losses around the world, reduces fish stocks, and jeopardizes marine ecosystems along with food security and livelihoods of legitimate fisher communities. This case is no exception.
Reported squid catches have plummeted by 80% and 82% in South Korean and Japanese waters respectively since 2003. Unable to compete with the industrial Chinese trawlers, North Korean fishers in their smaller wooden boats have apparently been driven to risk long-distance trips to fish in Russian waters – voyages that have in many cases proved fatal. Some fishing villages on North Korea’s eastern coast are now referred to as “widows’ villages” because of the hundreds of fishermen lost at sea.
This report is the largest ever documented case of illegal fishing by vessels originating from one country operating in another nation’s waters, and, unfortunately, this case is only the tip of the iceberg. “The scale of the fleet involved in this illegal fishing is about one-third the size of China’s entire distant water fishing fleet,” said Jaeyoon Park, senior data scientist at Global Fishing Watch and co-lead author of the study. The detected vessels came from China and are assumed to be owned and operated by Chinese interests.
At Oceana, we win policy victories for the oceans that stop overfishing, reduce bycatch, limit pollution, preserve habitat, and protect wildlife in many of the world’s most important fishing countries. But to ensure the policy wins are enforced, we also need effective monitoring and transparency (and to ensure that the oceans can become more abundant). That’s why transparency is a major focus for Oceana and at the center of Global Fishing Watch’s increasingly successful efforts.
Fishing in the “dark” (without transmitting a ship’s location and path) should be the same as driving a car without a license plate. This should result in getting pulled over by the police. Oceana is now campaigning to make transparency at sea a reality by advocating for nations to make their commercial fishing fleet’s vessel tracking data available to the public in near real-time. Last year, the Chilean government agreed to make its vessel tracking data for 700 fishing vessels and more than 800 vessels serving Chile’s aquaculture industry visible on Global Fishing Watch. Mexico also provided access to data from 2012 to 2018 for more than 2,000 commercial fishing vessels. And in 2017, Oceana helped secure a commitment from the government of Peru to publish its vessel tracking data.
We will continue to work with Global Fishing Watch and our campaign teams to make transparency the norm and fishing in “the dark” less and less a reality.