Pirate or illegal fishing is rampant around the globe and is responsible for large amounts of lost revenue (reportedly in the billions of US Dollars) and food product for many of the poorer nations and regions in the world. Pirate fishing vessels transit the globe to fish illegally with little repercussions as global, regional, and national enforcement is minimal at best.
These pirate fishing vessels are classified as Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) vessels:
1) Illegal – vessels operate in violation of regional laws, i.e., fishing out of season, catching wrong species, using wrong gear, catching more than their quota, not having the proper license.
2) Unreported – either not reporting or misreporting size of catch.
3) Unregulated – vessels that have no national registration, flying wrong flag, or fish where there are no conservation measures in place.
Of course it is the poorest of countries/regions, for example the West Coast of Africa, that are most affected by IUU fishing mainly due to their inability to patrol and monitor their territorial waters and economic zones leaving them very susceptible to IUU fishing vessels. A case in point is the evolution of the pirates that currently operate off the coasts of Somalia. It can be said that after its civil war and breakdown of a centralized government local fisherman took up patrolling their waters to save their way of life. This waterborne militia eventually realized that they could exploit their new found capabilities and morphed into the modern day pirates.
Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO) are responsible for managing fish population on the high seas and fish that may migrate from one region to another. They adopt fisheries conservation and management measures that are binding on their members. They are also in charge of measures to combat IUU fishing, and measures to reduce bycatch of dolphins, turtles, sharks and other fish. These organizational responsibilities are divided as follows:
Major Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMO)
AIDCP – Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program
CCAMLR – Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources
CCSBT – Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna
GFCM – General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean
IATTC – Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission
ICCAT – International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas
IOTC – Indian Ocean Tuna Commission
NAFO – Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization
NASCO – Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization
NEAFC – Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in North East Atlantic Fisheries
SEAFO – South East Atlantic Ocean Fisheries Organization
SPRFMO – South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization
WCPFC – Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission
Pirates use ruses and false certification to evade identification and even when they are caught they face minimal fines or may even be placed on an RFMO IUU List banning these vessels from fishing in the waters the group may monitor but with a quick change of the name and flag they are usually back in operation right away.
Fish pirates elude scrutiny and detection using a variety of tactics, making the beneficial owners of these illegal operations extremely difficult to identify and penalize. Changes in vessel name and flag are common and some vessels even have dual identities – using one name or flag while fishing in West Africa and a different one when using port facilities and landing catches. For many vessels spotted in the region, there is no information available whatsoever in the public domain.
Another activity that appears to be on the rise is the transshipment of catches to another vessel while at sea, rather than directly offloading in ports. This serves to conceal any connection between the fish and the vessel by the time the fish arrives on the market, meaning the true origin of the catch is unknown.
Transshipping and re-supplying at sea also allow pirate vessels to stay at sea and continue to catch fish rather than transit to port when their holds are full, where they could be confronted with port inspections or control of their activities. There is very little if any monitoring on the hygienic handling or packaging of the fish product by these vessels and because of their lower costs the fish products are ending up on the unsuspecting population.
On any given day there are over 2000 Fishing vessels at sea as evidenced by the use of their AIS transponders (depicted below are 2392 fishing vessels). While an AIS system is only required on vessels greater than 300GRT, there are many vessels below that size limit that have AIS.
Unfortunately, IUU vessels disregard this requirement and routinely operate on the high seas with the system turned off. When looking at a current list of IUU vessels from the major RFMOs we have found that the vessels almost never use or have used their AIS systems, frequently change names/flags and use old names/flags, sometimes using false IMO numbers, etc. Until a better job of enforcement is accomplished these vessels will continue to illegally operate. The below list shows the vessels on the RFMOs IUU list and many are over the 300GT requirement to have an AIS system onboard, but have never used them.
According to the Environmental Justice Foundation many of the West Africa IUU Fishing Vessels operate from the port of Las Palmas as a port of convenience allowing them access to provisions, fuel, and transshipment of their catches to Europe. As seen below monitoring of vessels via AIS in Las Palmas is available but only if the vessel has its system turned on. IUU vessels simply don’t turn on their systems even within the territorial waters or harbors of Las Palmas.
The bottom line is that until fishery and safe navigation standards are applied to all vessels operating at sea, especially the IUU vessels, we will continue to see our oceans illegally overfished and vessels operating outside maritime standards. A basic understanding of fisheries, species, seasons, gear, and licensing is required for navies and coast guards to monitor regional fishing activity and detentions and confiscations may be the message that needs to be sent to the IUU fleets that their activity will no longer be tolerated.