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A starting point for greater transparency in the fishing industry


WWF were instrumental in initiating and then co-sponsoring the decision taken on 4 December 2013 at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), to include fishing vessels of 100GT and above into the voluntary IMO Numbering Scheme. This is an important measure to improve transparency in the fishing industry, long beset by non-permanent vessel identifiers such as call signs, MMSI numbers and ship names.

These identifiers are not only recycled within flag registries, they can be easily changed by owners moving between registries, thus making it difficult to identify vessels reliably and link them to their operational fishing licenses, history or ownership; or track vessels engaged in illegal activities .The IMO Number is permanent, allocated to a vessel at the order stage, and never re-used when the vessel is permanently removed from service. The Scheme has operated successfully in the cargo ship sector for 26 years.

The IMO Numbering Scheme is not just a Unique Vessel Indicator (UVI); it is an independently managed historical audit of the vessel’s technical specification and ownership, continually cross-referenced and updated against both official and non-official data sources. This task is undertaken by a private company, IHS-Maritime (IHS-M), as managers of the IMO Numbering Scheme on behalf of the IMO. They have a commercial imperative for the databases to be current and accurate to meet the exacting standards of their customers for the data. It is also the existence of this commercial model that has allowed the IMO Numbering Scheme to be offered free of charge to the IMO and its Member States and to the owners of vessels wishing to acquire IMO numbers. IHSM has already issued some 23,000 IMO Numbers to fishing vessels of >=100GT.

Fishing Vessels of 100GT and above, such as the pictured UK trawler Catharina, can now obtain an IMO Number.Fishing Vessels of 100GT and above, such as the pictured UK trawler Catharina, can now obtain an IMO Number. [Photo provided by IHS Fairplay]Who will benefit?


While the IMO has just agreed a non-binding measure, in anticipation of this three Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMO’s) have recently mandated IMO Numbers for fishing vessels >=100 GT authorised to operate in their areas – Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). This is an important start in spreading the use of IMO Numbers for fishing vessels, and should be taken up by all RFMOs, as well as at a flag, coastal and port state level, where national governments can implement legislation requiring IMO Numbers in the documents of their registered vessels that fall within the criteria of the Scheme, as well as for foreign vessels licensed to operate in their Exclusive Economic Zone’s (EEZ’s) or visiting their ports. IMO Numbers should also be a required identifier in any vessel tracking systems that are mandatory in these areas, such as Vessel Monitoring System’s (VMS) and Automatic Identification System’s (AIS).

Private sector

The private sector can also benefit here – for example banks, insurance companies & P&I Clubs should require IMO Numbers for fishing vessels as a key element of vessel identity, in the same way that many shipbuilders and classification societies have usually required an IMO Number in their documentation.

Seafood Traceability Systems

There are also benefits in introducing the IMO Number for fishing vessels into seafood traceability systems operated by suppliers, processors and retailers. The IMO Number could provide a unique link between the catch sold by retailers and the fishing vessels that caught it, and also help inform suppliers, retailers and consumers of the wider operational, safety and crew practices of the vessels and owners within their supply chains. As such, the schemes could provide more detailed information than existing traceability schemes. Referencing IMO numbers to a growing number of external monitoring databases will help suppliers and retailers strengthen their existing Codes of Practice to promote sustainable fishing practices and keep fish taken by illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities out of their supply chains. It would also assist in developing new Codes of Practice on vessel safety and crew conditions.

Future Developments

At a global governance level following the IMO amendment, IMO Numbers can be introduced in the future implementation of mandatory measures on fishing vessel safety, fishing operations and crew conditions that have been developed by three UN Agencies – the IMO, FAO and ILO, respectively. These are: the Cape Town Agreement (IMO), Port State Measures Agreement (FAO) and the Work in Fishing Convention (ILO). These regulatory measures now await ratification by a required number of the Member States of these UN Agencies before they can enter into force.

One global transparency measure that should make progress in 2014 is the Global Record of Fishing Vessels (GRFV) being developed at the FAO. The first phase of this covers vessels of 100GT and above. The GRFV is planned as a global information system to support, in particular, the operation of the Port State Measures Agreement, which is a port inspection regime that aims to prevent illegally caught fish from entering international markets through ports of first landing. But the GR has the potential to provide information in support of a range of other regulatory and private sector functions, for example safety and seafood traceability. The Equasis database, developed as a free public access system for cargo ship safety information, is a good model on which to base the GRFV. The IHS-F database and IMO Number provide the core fleet database and UVI, while the system is able to access a wide range of both governmental and non-governmental data sources via IMO Number hyperlinks.

Netherlands fishing vessel Bona Fide (pictured) already has an IMO Number: 8432431Netherlands fishing vessel Bona Fide (pictured) already has an IMO Number: 8432431 [Photo provided by IHS Fairplay]While there is as yet no mandate to develop the GRFV into its planned Phases 2 and 3, which will expand the information sources for fishing vessels down to 12 metres in length, some thought need to be given as to how the core database and UVI system will be developed for this fleet. The problem is the huge number of these small vessels, which would not be commercially viable under the research methods employed by the IMO Numbering Scheme. Fortunately, the FAO may already have a solution to this. They have developed the VRMF online database  using primarily Flag Registry data, employing electronic algorithms to de-duplicate vessel records and issue an internal UVI; while a range of vessel identifiers are used to hyperlink into external data sources. Flag Registry data may well be of sufficient accuracy on these smaller vessels, which operate mainly in their own flag state EEZ. The data on these vessels is not as volatile as on larger and high seas vessels operating often under multiple Registers, which need the research focus of the IMO Numbering Scheme.

These are some of the key areas of fishing vessel transparency on which we will continue to campaign, advise and assist during 2014, helping to move the fishing industry towards the norms established for cargo shipping.

Trevor Downing is the director of TJD Maritime Consultants and a consultant to WWF. If you have an opinion about Trevor’s blog, please leave a comment.

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