New Eligibility Standards for Vessel ID Numbers Will Help Fight Illegal Fishing

Smaller fishing vessels can now be given unique IMO numbers

vessel id

New IMO guidance expands identification numbers to include smaller fishing vessels.

© Marco Rosario Venturini Autie

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) recently expanded its system of identification numbers to include smaller fishing vessels. This means that thousands of additional fishing vessels are now eligible to apply for IMO numbers, the unique and permanent identifiers that follow them from construction to scrapping, regardless of flag, ownership, or name.

The IMO action enables regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and their member states to mandate IMO numbers for a larger pool of fishing vessels, which will allow for more comprehensive tracking throughout the fishing industry.

Today, flags or call signs are frequently used as identifiers, but owners can change these easily, making it difficult to identify those breaking the rules. Records based on IMO numbers provide an independent audit trail for each vessel. IHS Maritime & Trade (IHSM), which manages the IMO system, continually updates and cross-checks the information against multiple data sources.

The IMO action expands the parameters of the existing ship identification number scheme to include fishing vessels that weigh less than 100 gross tons and are as small as 12 meters in length. In addition, non-steel hull vessels—such as those made from wood or fiberglass—are now eligible if they weigh at least 100 gross tons.

This new guidance makes eligibility for IMO numbers clear for all fishing vessel owners, an important step that will help with implementation of a recently enacted European Union mandate. The EU now requires that any fishing vessel longer than 15 meters operating outside EU waters obtain an IMO number.

As more fishing vessels get these unique, permanent numbers, it will become easier for authorities to identify those engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. That will boost their ability to track misconduct and gather evidence when they suspect unlawful activity. As a result, vessel owners will have fewer options to circumvent control measures or fish without being traced.

IHSM has already started administering the new provisions and will need to work closely with flag States and RFMOs to ensure that vessel information remains up to date and accurate.

Tony Long directs the ending illegal fishing project for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Spotlight on Mental Health

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.

Explore Pew’s new and improved
Fiscal 50 interactive

Your state's stats are more accessible than ever with our new and improved Fiscal 50 interactive:

  • Maps, trends, and customizable charts
  • 50-state rankings
  • Analysis of what it all means
  • Shareable graphics and downloadable data
  • Proven fiscal policy strategies


Welcome to the new Fiscal 50

Key changes include:

  • State pages that help you keep track of trends in your home state and provide national and regional context.
  • Interactive indicator pages with highly customizable and shareable data visualizations.
  • A Budget Threads feature that offers Pew’s read on the latest state fiscal news.

Learn more about the new and improved Fiscal 50.