A Pew Charitable Trust analysis shed light on the thousands of transshipments that occurred across the central and western Pacific throughout 2016, many of which were not properly reported.
Illegal transshipments make up an estimated $142 million black fish market, according to a report by MRAG Asia Pacific.
“Most transshipments take place far out at sea—where, out of the sight and reach of authorities, unscrupulous fishing vessel operators can obscure, manipulate, or otherwise falsify data on their fishing practices, the species or amounts caught or transferred, and catch locations," explained researchers in their report.
Although the practice of switching cargo between vessels can help get fresh fish to market sooner, without proper monitoring and reporting at sea and in port, it’s difficult to prevent illegal catch from being imported and sold at market.
“Secretive and illegal fishing practices mean that wildlife can be devastated by overfishing and bycatch,” explained Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Program Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Accurate reporting of catch is vital to enforcement of laws and treaties aimed at protecting wildlife.”
“For example, the U.S. bans imports from countries whose fishing practices imperil marine mammals and without accurate information about transshipment, it’s impossible to know where the fish is coming from and how damaging are the fishing practices,” Sakashita added.
To map out carrier vessel movement at sea, Pew researchers combined data tracking vessels via satellite automatic identification system (AIS) with data self-reported by vessels to the Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).
Comprised of 26 member governments, seven co-ops, and seven territories, WCPFC manages the world’s largest tuna fishery encompassing 20 percent of the earth’s surface. As the name suggests, its boundary spans the western and central Pacific from eastern Australia, north along Indonesia and Singapore, and east across the entire Asian coastline encompassing China, Russia and western Alaska.
Since 2009 WCPFC has mandated that purse seine fleets only transship catch in port, and recommends all other vessels do the same.
The September Pew report however highlights where WCPFC “appears to be compromised.”
“We know this is anomalous activity, but unless you have additional information, we couldn't say that it was noncompliant activity,” noted Mark Young, senior manager for Pew's International Fisheries division.
“Over the course of 10 years there certainly are opportunities where those who are unscrupulous can find loopholes or gaps to exploit and unless you really put in place measures to take care of those potential loopholes, those activities can happen and without any response,” Young said.
Pew observed 2,240 potential transshipments at sea in 2016 on 100 carrier vessels, but researchers consider that a low estimate, considering 381 carrier vessels failed to transmit their location on AIS as required for all watercraft lager than 300 tons.
"At least five times as many authorized carrier vessels operated in WCPFC waters in 2016 than the 25 that filed transshipment reports. The movements of these other carriers while in WCPFC waters indicate that far more transshipments at sea probably occurred than were reported," researchers found.
While WCPFC vessels only reported 956 transshipments, Pew identified 1,538 likely transfers at sea, plus 700 events within exclusive economic zones.
The report recommends governments and fisheries ban transshipment at sea unless best practices are adopted, including mandatory reporting occurring within 24 hours.
The report also found a lot of activity concentrated where fisheries over lap, like in the eastern Pacific where the Inter American Tropical Tuna Commission meets the WCFCP and off the coast of Japan where its boundary overlaps the North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NFPC).
There was no means by which management authorities for either organization had a good understanding of whose rules and regulations those vessels were operating on a particular voyage,” Young said it was difficult to tell “whether they were transshipping species managed by the NPFC or species managed by WCPFC, or both on the same trip. That provides opportunities for activities to fall under the radar or go unreported to the appropriate organization.”
Although WCPSC did not respond immediately to a request for comment, the research was discussed at its technical and compliance committee meeting in Pohnpei last month.
Since this study only analyzed data from 2016, Pew’s small teach of researchers plans to repeat the study for 2017 and 2018 as the data becomes available.