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Championing development of a transparent Global Record of fishing vessels


The Global Record of fishing vessels (GR) is intended as a record and source of information on the world fleet of fishing and fishing related vessels. Currently no such comprehensive record and information source on vessels and their permitted activities exists, which means that regulatory organisations authorise individual measures on vessels without access to information on the global activities of those vessels or the wider activities of fleets.

Fishing vessels also frequently change identity and flag, and often operate under more than one flag, making it difficult to track vessel activities through regional and national databases. This creates opportunities for Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) vessels to escape detection.

As with so many regulatory measures in the fishing industry, the GR has had a long gestation. The need for it was acknowledged as far back as 2002 in the International Plan of Action to Prevent Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA-IUU). This was followed by the Rome declaration on IUU fishing which called for the development of a GR within the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

A possible basis for compiling a comprehensive record of larger high seas vessels at the FAO from flag state registers – the High Seas Vessel Authorisation Record or HSVAR – has largely failed due to lack of broad based engagement by Member States in the Compliance Agreement and a poor record of regular updating by those who have engaged.

A different approach was advised in 2006 by the High Seas Task Force (HSTF), which proposed basing the development of the GR on the Equasis model – a public access database of cargo ship safety information funded and administered independently by a group of quality-minded flag states.

A GR Expert Group at FAO in 2008 stressed the need for accurate, comprehensive and transparent data. A Technical Consultation in 2010 recommended the provision and updating of information for the Global Record by the flag State. The importance of a Unique Vessel Identifier (UVI) for increased traceability of vessels was stressed, and a phased approach to the development of the GR, starting on a voluntary basis with larger vessels of 100GT and above. This plan for the GR has continued to be supported at FAO by the Committee on Fisheries (COFI), but so far has no separate budget.

Netherlands fishing vessel Bona Fide © IHS FairplayNetherlands fishing vessel Bona Fide © IHS Fairplay

There may be a conflict of priorities among FAO member states between the current COFI mandate to develop the GR initially for larger and predominantly high seas vessels and the desire for a GR to cover smaller fishing vessels which also suffer from IUU activities in EEZs. A possible way forward is a dual approach that can be pursued in parallel: a GR for high seas vessels championed by a group of like-minded states and following the independent Equasis model, as proposed by the HSTF; and of a GR for smaller vessels continuing to be based on existing database work at the FAO, supported by capacity building for the development of vessel registers and information infrastructure in developing economies.

Equasis – a model for phase 1 of the GR?

The reason for the development of the Equasis information system has many similarities to the current status of the GR for fishing vessels. An initiative at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to build a central database of cargo ship safety information failed to progress for lack of funding and prioritisation.

Equasis was set up independently in 2000, the initial signatories to the MOU being the EU and the maritime administration of France as well as those of Singapore, Spain, the UK, the US Coast Guard and Japan. This has subsequently been extended to include Brazil, Canada, the Republic of Korea and Norway.

The governance structure of Equasis consists of a Supervisory Board of the funders that sets the strategy; an editorial board made up of the data providers that monitors data standards and the public access system, and provides advice on new data sources. Separate Management and Technical Units administer the organisation and the on-line portal.

Equasis data policy is driven by a combination of mandatory and voluntary measures that have brought into the system both governmental and non-governmental data sources. Industry sanction has been one of the pressures that has encouraged the widening provision of data sources to Equasis. The core record of ship and owner information is provided by IHS Maritime (IHSM), a private company which is also responsible for maintaining the IMO numbering scheme on behalf of the IMO. The IMO number provides the key unique vessel identifier (UVI) for integrating the separate data sources internally and externally via hyperlinks.

Equasis operates on a key principle that has been important to its success: that it acts as a portal for a wide range of unbiased safety-related information to inform the decisions of its users, but does not vet or categorise ships in terms of their safety standards. The liability in using any of the information sources within the system remains with the user. It has proved to be a very successful model – as reflected in the levels of usage, and its reputation in both regulatory and industry sectors.

A GR for larger Vessels operating on the high seas and outside national jurisdiction

Applying the Equasis model to the GR would see a group of champion states, possibly some or all of the group of member states party to the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), enter into an MOU to fund a public domain information system for fishing vessels, with a similar independent governance structure, and a data policy that includes both governmental and non-governmental sources.

PSMA is a port inspection regime that aims to prevent illegally caught fish from entering international markets through ports of first landing, and the GR will be an important tool for the effective implementation of this measure; in particular, vessel identity and the availability of information on fishing licences and authorisations.

These same states could take immediate steps to mandate the use of IMO numbers in their fishing vessel registers, PSMA databases, and in their fishing licences and authorisations, which would make it easier for the early integration of this information into the GR.

Norwegian fishing vessel Fiskeboen © IHS Fairplay

The extension of the IMO Numbering Scheme to include fishing vessels of 100gt and above by the IMO in December 2013, has already paved the way for the use of IMO Numbers within information sources that will contribute to the future GR, such as the four Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMO’s) that 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),  International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) and Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).

The existing IHSM database of fishing vessels >= 100GT can provide the UVI, core record and audit trail of vessel and owner information to the GR, in the same way that its cargo fleet database does in Equasis. Mandating the use of IMO numbers in fishing vessel registers will help facilitate the existing update procedures between flag registries and IHSM.

Industry pressures played a key role in the development of Equasis – the charter markets in particular – and a similar role is expected to be played by the seafood markets and their customer base in the development of the GR. The GR can provide important sources of vessel operational data to reduce the risk in existing industry traceability systems of IUU product entering supply chains: including information on fishing licences, authorisations and quotas, history of landings, vessel black lists, inspections and non-compliance in RFMO areas, and possibly vessel tracking information from public domain sources such as AIS.

The champion states can lead in providing this proprietary data to the GR for their fleets and ports, setting the information standards that industry will demand from other countries.

The future development of the GR will see expansion of data sources to include fishing vessel safety – mirroring the role of Equasis for cargo ships – and crew working conditions. These areas are going to be of increasing concern to the seafood industry.

A GR for small vessels

A GR for smaller vessels is also important to the seafood retail industry to trace product from EEZs that enter international supply chains. The focus initially will have to be on building the central vessel record 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.

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 needs the independent research focus of the IMO numbering scheme.

The FAO also has a capacity building programme in place to support the development of vessel registers and the information infrastructure in a number of developing countries. It is understood that the proposed model for developing the GR for such large numbers of small vessels is a decentralised source and hub arrangement, where the sources (primarily flag administrations and fisheries authorities) do most of the work, using the hub software to help disentangle duplicate entries within local registers (including regional registers), and with other flag registers. The local registers are then entirely responsible for data updating.

The electronically generated UVI within the VRMF may well be sufficiently robust to be adopted globally for small vessels and be taken up over time on vessel documents and in external information systems. Meanwhile a range of existing vessel identifiers has already been used within the VRMF to hyperlink into external data sources.

FAO policy

The GR will be on the agenda at the next FAO COFI meeting in June 2014. At this stage, FAO’s priority is with the system development and implementation of Phase 1. Once this is advanced, the first steps will be taken in considering expansion to smaller vessels in Phases 2 and 3, taking into account the experience gained from implementing Phase 1. The basis for the GR will be certified, up-to-date vessel records provided by the authorities responsible for the information.

This blog is written by Trevor Downing, 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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