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Governance requirements for fishing vessel information transparency’


Much has been written about Google’s big data project to combat IUU fishing by planning to make public global real time satellite AIS data on fishing vessels. Not all of this commentary has been complementary, not least because of flaws in the underlying assumptions behind the project. This blog provides suggestions on how some of these flaws might be addressed.

Flaws in the Global Project

The global context of the project is flawed, perhaps more so than has been noted to date. There are no multilateral governance measures in force for AIS on fishing vessels, not even on the larger size ranges of 300GT and above where AIS is mandated on cargo vessels. The application of the AIS requirements in Regulation 19 of SOLAS Chapter V to fishing vessels is entirely at the behest of the flag state. This also means that none of the global enforcement frameworks for AIS, such as Port State Control, currently exists for fishing vessels.

The IMO is unlikely to visit the subject of AIS on fishing vessels until the Cape Town Agreement enters into force. This Agreement will parallel for fishing vessels the safety regime of SOLAS for cargo vessels and will require future amendment to mandate AIS on fishing vessels.

GFW Project AIS Coverage map © GFW ProjectGFW Project AIS Coverage map © GFW Project

This also means that the context at the IMO for any future global introduction of AIS on fishing vessels will be safety, not vessel monitoring. AIS was introduced on cargo vessels under SOLAS as a safety measure, to make the details of vessels visible to each other and to land based safety systems.

It is the public-access nature of the AIS signal that has enabled it to be accessed by third party surveillance systems including satellite, which is the basis of the Google big data project. The IMO’s current view on the public display of AIS data transmitted by ships is that it could be detrimental to the safety and security of ships and port facilities.

Consideration of the benefits of AIS for the monitoring of fishing vessel – as a supplement to existing Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) – will require the intervention of the FAO. An ideal opportunity for a full discussion on this would be the 3rd Joint IMO/FAO Ad Hoc Working Group on IUU Fishing, which is currently scheduled for December 2015, where IMO and FAO technical expertise can be brought together.

Regional Enforcement

Although a multilateral regulatory scheme for AIS enforcement for fishing vessels is therefore somewhat distant, AIS has been mandated at a flag and coastal state level, including in the EU and US. Thus fishing vessels under the flags of these states, plus any other vessels operating in the EEZ’s of these states, have to operate AIS.

It is perhaps, therefore, through enforcement at the level of flag /coastal / port state and RFMO’s, that the Google AIS data can most effectively be used, as a way of identifying the “good guys” – as already discussed in IUU fora.

Vessel Identification

There are a few lessons that can be learned from the prototype experiences. For example, that the permanent vessel identifier – the IMO Number – should be mandated within AIS. Given the well- known practice of flag hopping in fishing, use of non-permanent identifiers, such as the MMSI Number, would make it impossible to track the activities of individual vessels.

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]WWF has put forward an agenda item for discussion at the 3rd Joint IMO/FAO Working Group on IUU (3rd JWG), to change the current scope of the IMO Numbering Scheme for fishing vessels: from “all steel-hulled vessels of 100GT and above” to “all vessels of whatever size and hull material operating in waters beyond the jurisdiction of the flag State, and those using foreign ports for landings”. This would bring under the Scheme vessels authorized to operate in RFMO areas that are not currently eligible for IMO Numbers, including non-steel hull vessels, and vessels below 100 gross tonnage that operate on the high seas. It would also include all vessels that could be subject to inspection under the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA).

If this change to the scope of the IMO Numbering Scheme is accepted, perhaps this should also be the range of vessels on which AIS should be made mandatory by flag/ coastal/ port states – something else which could be up for discussion by the 3rd JWG.

This is not to deny the potential use of AIS on smaller fishing vessels operating in their own EEZ’s – which has also been the subject of recent discussions in IUU fora. There is a second AIS unit designed for small vessels, particularly yachts, which would be applicable to small fishing vessels. For these vessels operating in their own EEZ’s, and whose identity is less volatile than most high seas vessels, the MMSI Number, Call Sign or national identification number would be a sufficient identifier within AIS.

Overcoming AIS Fraud

But vessel identity is only one of a number of potential flaws within AIS. There are major problems with AIS fraud under existing mandated regulations, as has been documented on cargo vessels by Windward (PDF). AIS is not tamper-free even under the most rigorous of regulatory systems. Windward also documents examples of obscuring destinations, going dark (i.e turning AIS off), GPS positional manipulation.

Perhaps beyond the resources of the average fisher, nevertheless AIS data needs to be trusted if it is to be used to help identify IUU operators and within seafood traceability.

There is a need, therefore, probably by those organisations already experienced in handling AIS data and vessel identity, to develop applications that can authenticate AIS tracking of fishing vessels, and identify where manipulation might have taken place. Such applications would be looking for any inconsistencies in a continuous AIS track or vessel identity, and are likely to be more effective as AIS coverage increases, with fewer data gaps. These organisations also have their own landside networks of AIS receivers to complement satellite data, which is generally considered important in high density traffic areas – something else that has been overlooked in Google’s satellite application.

Enforcement through Seafood Traceability

Once there are such applications in place that could be operated on a sample risk basis to authenticate the “good guys”, then AIS tracking can be added to the required data tools that can be used by port authorities under PSMA to help identify IUU vessels; and added to the range of data required in traceability by market states and retailers. All of which will push more states and regional organisations to mandate the requirement.

This blog is written by Trevor Downing, Director of TJD Maritime Consultants and a Consultant to WWF.

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