UN Body Closes Loophole in Fight Against Illegal Fishing

Move paves way for mandatory identification numbers

Under current fisheries laws in most of the world, a 100-ton fishing vessel can essentially “disappear” by completing basic paperwork to change its name, radio call sign, or flag of registration.

But a Dec. 4 move by the UN body responsible for global maritime safety could spell an end to that major regulatory gap: The International Maritime Organization, or IMO, removed an exemption for fishing vessels from the IMO's ship identification scheme.

The seven-digit IMO number—similar to serial numbers required for mobile phones and vehicle identification numbers on automobiles—has been mandatory for all merchant and passenger ships in excess of 100 gross tonnes (gt) since 1996. Fishing vessels, however, have been exempted from the requirement. Because ship names, call signs (the codes used during radio transmissions to identify ships), and other identifiers are not permanent and can easily be changed by owners, authorities have faced a significant obstacle in tracking fishing vessels.

Manuel Castiano, director of fisheries surveillance in Mozambique, says the IMO number has been vital to his successful prosecution of industrial foreign-flagged vessels for illegal fishing.

The IMO numbering scheme was introduced to enhance maritime safety and security; registered vessels carry the same unique indicator from construction to scrapping. Originally established and maintained by Lloyd's Register, numbers are currently administered on behalf of the IMO by IHS Fairplay. It is widely regarded as the best available global vessel identification system, because each number is coupled with an independently managed data source on the vessel's specifications, history, and ownership, which is continually updated and cross-checked against multiple sources.

The amendment to remove the exemption for fishing vessels of 100 gt or more passed at the IMO's 2013 General Assembly in London. The move allows IMO member states, as well as regional fisheries management organizations, or RFMOs, coastal States, and flag States to require that all fishing vessels of this size have an IMO number. Owners can obtain a vessel ID free of charge through a simple process. Fisheries experts agree that mandating an identification number will greatly aid in the identification of fishing fleets worldwide and help maintain reliable lists of authorized vessels distinguish them from those known to be engaged in illegal activity.

A 2011 article in the journal Science cited the lack of IMO numbers for fishing vessels as a major reason for the failure of port officials to identify and act against illegal operators. Research by The Pew Charitable Trusts also found numerous inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the records of vessels authorized to fish in areas managed by RFMOs, including:

  • Multiple instances of the same vessel listed under different reporting flags with different tonnage and length specifications.
  • Vessels listed twice under different names and flags.
  • Many vessels listed with the same radio call sign.
  • Vessels that had sunk still listed as authorized to fish.

In November, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources became the marine management organization to require IMO numbers on all vessels fishing within its jurisdiction. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission will consider a similar move at its annual meeting in early December. Pew is now urging all major RFMOs to adopt similar mandates for vessels of at least 100 gt or 20 meters in length.

IHS Fairplay has already issued identification numbers to some 22,000 fishing vessels in a voluntary extension of the scheme. It is estimated that thousands of vessels could be required to register now that the exemption has been lifted.

Tony Long, who leads Pew's project to end illegal fishing, said: “The IMO has opened the door to a new era of transparency in fisheries. This is a landmark moment in the global fight to prevent operators from circumventing control measures and avoiding tracking if they are blacklisted.” He added that mandatory IMO numbers will be “a critical building block” in a system of accountability and visibility for fishing vessels. “Next, we need widespread adoption of stronger controls at ports and tamperproof tracking systems on board vessels involved in fishing operations,” Long said.

Pew advocates a worldwide system of mandatory IMO numbers for fishing vessels and recommends the following actions now that the exemption has been lifted:

  • RFMOs should require that all vessels authorized to fish in their waters carry IMO numbers.
  • Coastal States should mandate that foreign-flagged ships secure IMO numbers before being permitted to fish in their waters.
  • States should promptly ratify the IMO's 2012 Cape Town Agreement, which establishes international rules on fishing vessel safety.
  • Port States should require that all foreign fishing vessels entering their ports have IMO numbers.
  • Banks financing the purchase or repair of large fishing vessels should require them to have IDs before offering financing.
  • Insurance companies that insure large fishing vessels should make policies conditional upon having IMO numbers, and coverage should be voided for vessels that are successfully prosecuted for illegal fishing.

For more information see http://www.pewenvironment.org/news-room/factsheets/illegal-fishing-your-numbers-up-85899498000

Contact John Briley, communications officer: +1-202-540-6394, Jbriley@pewtrusts.org