To Stem Illegal Fishing, Project Shines Light on at-Sea Transfer of Fish

First-of-its-kind web portal shows where, when transshipment is occurring

To Stem Illegal Fishing, Project Shines Light on at-Sea Transfer of Fish
Catch transfer at sea
Transfer of catch often occurs at sea, making it harder for fishery managers and authorities to monitor activity or robustly enforce existing regulations.
Adam Baske for the Pew Charitable Trusts

Over the past few decades, industrial-scale fishing fleets have increasingly relied on refrigerated cargo—or carrier—vessels to transfer catch, a process known as transshipment. This allows fishing vessels, and the crew on board, to stay at sea for months at a time. Although this does improve the efficiency of the fishing industry, the practice is often hard to monitor and regulate at sea.

Transshipment is a major part of the global fishing industry. Each year, thousands of fishing vessels transfer fresh catch to hundreds of carrier ships—which bring fish to ports—a process that reduces fuel costs for fishing vessels. These transshipments are often conducted far out at sea, outside the view of authorities. Existing monitoring and regulatory controls over transshipment at sea are insufficient, with no guarantee that all transfers are being reported or observed. Although the practice is legal in much of the world’s ocean, ineffective monitoring and control of transshipment creates opportunities for illegally caught seafood to enter the supply chain.

To help increase the visibility of these activities, Global Fishing Watch, an international nonprofit that promotes transparency in commercial fishing, and The Pew Charitable Trusts have launched the Carrier Vessel Portal, a public website that aims to increase the overall transparency of transshipment. This portal is the first publicly available tool focused on transshipment and will better inform policymakers, authorities, fleet operators and other fisheries stakeholders about when and where these activities take place at sea.

Gaps in regulatory frameworks and insufficient monitoring capacity create opportunities for illicit activities, such as misreporting or non-reporting of catches. This can result in the laundering of millions of dollars of illegally caught fish annually and fosters conditions that are conducive to trafficking in weapons, drugs and people. 

A 2019 Pew report, “Transshipment in the Western and Central Pacific,” estimated that more than 1,500 potential high-seas transshipment events occurred in waters managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) in 2016—while carrier vessels reported only 956 such events to the Commission.

The Carrier Vessel Portal provides users access to a variety of data, including the historical tracks, authorization and license information of carrier vessels and the fishing vessels they encounter, as well as the ports they visit. Additionally, users can view the locations of potential transshipments, which are identified using machine learning technology and Automatic Identification System (AIS) data. Users will be able to filter the information by time, location and flag of vessels. Fisheries managers will also be able to use the portal to help cross-check and verify vessel monitoring system data, transshipment declarations and observer reports and more effectively regulate and manage fisheries.

Reforming how transshipment is managed and tracked is crucial not only for healthy fisheries, but also for detecting and deterring illegal activities in the fishing industry. The Carrier Vessel Portal aims to increase transparency of this often-unseen activity and improve the ability of fisheries organizations to track high-seas transfers and detect unauthorized transfers, and represents a key step toward helping stakeholders better understand transshipment operations.

Peter Horn is a project director for Pew’s international fisheries work, where he leads efforts to end illegal fishing, and Alyson Kauffman is a senior associate on the team.

Transshipment in the Western and Central Pacific
Transshipment in the Western and Central Pacific
Report

Transshipment in the Western and Central Pacific

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Report

The transshipment of catch, which allows fresh fish to get to market sooner, is a vital but largely hidden part of the global commercial fishing industry. Transshipment involves hundreds of refrigerated cargo vessels, or carrier vessels, roaming the oceans, taking in catch from thousands of fishing vessels and transporting it to shore for processing. While transshipment touches a wide range of seafood products, most is made up of bigeye, yellowfin, and skipjack tuna. Salmon, mackerel, and crab also account for a substantial portion of transshipped products.

Transshipment
Transshipment
Fact Sheet

Best Practices for Transshipment

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Fact Sheet

Transshipment of catch between vessels plays an enormous role in the global commercial fishing industry. Hundreds of refrigerated cargo vessels, or fish “carriers,” take fresh catch from thousands of fishing vessels each year and bring it to shore for processing.