At-Sea Transfer of Fish in Western and Central Pacific May be Significantly Underreported
Improved monitoring—and compliance with rules—could prevent illegal catch from entering port
Each day around the world, commercial fishing vessels pull up alongside refrigerated carrier ships to transfer valuable tuna, salmon, crab, and other marine species, which are then taken to shore for processing. Known as transshipment, these transfers help companies move fish to port efficiently, but they often take place in remote parts of the ocean, far from the view and reach of authorities.
A report released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts found evidence that potential lapses in reporting of transshipments to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC)—a regional fisheries management organization—may be compromising the body’s ability to prevent illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) catch from reaching port.
To gain better insight into transshipment operations, Pew fed commercially available automatic identification system (AIS) data into a predictive computer algorithm and used the results to analyze the historical movements of carrier vessels operating in WCPFC waters in 2016. Pew then compared this analysis with publicly available information from the WCPFC and other regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) on transshipments and carrier vessels.
Specifically, many WCPFC flag and coastal States are failing to comply with reporting requirements and/or are using non-standardized reporting responses. The report, “Transshipment in the Western and Central Pacific: Greater understanding and transparency of carrier vessel fleet dynamics would help reform management,” found that only 25 carrier vessels reported high-seas transshipments to the WCPFC’s secretariat in 2016 as required—but at least five times as many potentially transshipped in WCPFC waters or member State ports in 2016.
There is also a strong likelihood that more at-sea transshipment events occurred than were reported to the WCPFC. Pew found that over 1,500 potential transshipment events may have occurred on the high seas, far more than the 956 such events reported by carrier vessels. Another 703 may have occurred within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Pacific Island States within the Convention area. Accurate, thorough, and transparent reporting of transshipments is one of the many ways in which fisheries managers track catch and ensure that illegally caught fish are not entering market.
Failures in this system also have a significant financial impact on the fishing industry. In fact, a recent study estimated that in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, at least $142 million worth of IUU catch is transshipped each year—with most of it misreported or unreported by licensed fishing vessels.
The findings suggest that, although the technology exists to fully monitor transshipment and associated activities, consistent misreporting and a lack of data sharing among RFMOs is causing significant gaps in their ability to adequately audit and verify information and more easily detect anomalies and possible non-compliance.
To help ensure comprehensive compliance and data collection, WCPFC should adopt a global set of transshipment best practices, including measures to improve the regulatory framework, significantly strengthen vessel compliance, and promote transparency:
- Report all transshipment events, regardless of location or catch, to relevant flag State, coastal State, port State, and RFMO secretariats.
- Improve monitoring of transshipment activity through increased on-board observer coverage, electronic monitoring systems, and backup systems.
- Enhance data-sharing agreements (including those related to transshipment information) with RFMOs whose waters overlap with their own. WCPFC and two other RFMOs—the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) and the North Pacific Fisheries Commission—overlap significantly, illustrating the need for such data sharing.
With continued research, analysis, and action, WCPFC could greatly improve the monitoring and control of transshipment operations and become a model for other RFMOs across the globe. This report provides a blueprint for moving in the right direction.
Mark Young works on fisheries conservation and enforcement efforts for The Pew Charitable Trusts.
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