Unlike merchant ships, cars, and even cellphones, industrial fishing vessels are not required to have unique, permanent identifying numbers. Fishing vessels do have names, call signs, and other identifiers, but those can be changed by the owner quickly and easily. Further, such identifiers are not systematically included in relevant communications. This makes it easy for owners to hide their vessels' true identities if they want to—for example, if the vessels are being used in illicit activities.
Illegal activity on the high seas is rampant. Due to gaps in international fisheries policies, operators can evade accountability in numerous ways, allowing them to ignore catch quotas; fish without licenses; use destructive gear; and otherwise flout rules intended to make fishing fair, sustainable, and environmentally sound. In addition, illegal fishing is linked to other serious crimes in the eastern Pacific Ocean, including drug trafficking and human smuggling, as documented by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The lack of transparency for identifying fishing vessels helps criminal fishermen conceal their crimes.
Thus The Pew Charitable Trusts is calling on the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, or IATTC to take decisive steps to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated, or IUU, fishing. This can be done by requiring International Maritime Organization, or IMO, numbers for all vessels at least 24 meters in length that fish in waters managed by the commission. From research presented in this brief, Pew finds numerous errors and inconsistencies in data used to identify vessels authorized to fish in IATTC waters. By mandating IMO numbers, the commission could eliminate such problems.
Mandatory IMO numbers on fishing vessels would help authorities and fisheries managers monitor vessel activity at sea and in port. Research published in the journal Science in 2010 cited the lack of these numbers on fishing vessels as a prime factor in the failure of port officials to identify and take action against operators engaged in illegal activities. That study looked at vessels already on IUU lists maintained by regional fishery management organizations, including IATTC, that set policies for commercial fishing on the high seas.
By requiring IMO numbers, which are unique and permanent, these regional management organizations and the flag States that make up their membership could take a significant step toward preventing fraud, ensuring the safety and security of fishing operations, and promoting fairness for law-abiding commercial fishermen and vessel owners.
The IMO number system was introduced in 1987 to enhance safety, hold polluters accountable, and curtail fraud. The numbers are widely recognized as reliable and unique for identifying vessels in the global merchant fleet. The system has a proven record, thanks in part to the credible and cross-checked database that supports it.
Several international bodies have called the IMO number system the best available for easily and quickly identifying fishing vessels: the Kobe meetings of the tuna regional fisheries management organizations; the workshops on the Consolidated List of Authorized Vessels, of tuna regional fisheries management organizations; and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. In 2011 the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources required an IMO number for all vessels authorized to target toothfish in the Southern Ocean.
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