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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

Deceptive Shipping for Illegal, Unreported, & Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

Updated: Feb 21

"Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated IUU fishing describes a wide array of fishing activities that violate national and international fishing laws and regulations - occurring at numerous points throughout the seafood supply chain."

Fisheries are one of the world’s leading economic drivers, employing nearly 60 million people from almost every country and generating over $163 billion in export revenue annually. Global fisheries also provide food security to much of the world, supplying over 3 billion people with 20% or more of their daily animal protein intake - making them a vital resource for those striving to live happy and healthy lives. Not only do healthy oceans and marine ecosystems support economic growth and promote food security, but they also play a vital role in the global effort to mitigate climate change - acting as the largest and most efficient carbon sink on the planet. In fact, the world’s oceans sequester around 33% of human-produced carbon emissions, using phytoplankton to fixate otherwise free CO2 from the atmosphere.

However, the world’s fisheries, alongside the security they provide, are under severe threat - with approximately 85% of marine fish stocks considered fully exploited or overfished.

One of the primary causes of overfishing and one of the biggest threats to the health of the ocean and its ecosystems is illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing operations violate national and international law, regulations, & conservation efforts, and put legally operating and sustainable fisheries at a severe disadvantage. Further, IUU fishing is commonly associated with human rights violations like forced labor, low-wage labor, human trafficking, and more.

While governments around the world are aware of the threat that IUU fishing poses, there are numerous ways that IUU fishing operators circumvent prevention efforts and maintain profitability in an illicit industry.

IUU fishing organizations commonly use deceptive shipping practices like dark shipping to operate undetected at sea, manipulating everything from AIS data to port call paperwork - presenting a growing and evolving problem for governments and maritime regulatory agencies. Below, we take a deep dive into dark shipping and other deceptive shipping practices for IUU fishing, providing valuable insight and potential solutions to the quickly expanding issue.

A Brief Overview of IUU Fishing

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated IUU fishing describes a wide array of fishing activities that violate national and international fishing laws and regulations - occurring at numerous points throughout the seafood supply chain. According to officials, IUU fishing is today’s top maritime security threat. IUU fishing undermines U.S. and international efforts to sustainably manage fisheries and conserve marine resources - especially those considered exploited or overfished. Further, IUU fishing threatens global economic and food security and puts law-abiding fishers and sustainable fisheries at a severe disadvantage.

Illegal Fishing

Illegal Fishing describes fishing activities carried-out in direct violation of a country or region’s fishing laws and regulations - including those adopted at the international level.

Unreported Fishing

Unreported fishing describes any fishing activity that is not reported or misreported to the appropriate authorities as defined by national, regional, or international law.

Unregulated Fishing

Unregulated fishing usually happens in areas or fish stocks with no conservation or management control to ensure fishing is conducted consistently and following sustainability strategies. Fishing is also considered unregulated in RFMO-managed (Regional Fishery Management Organization) areas and by vessels with no nationality or those flying a flag that is not associated with the RFMO.

What are The Most Significant Challenges in Mitigating IUU Fishing?

Identifying IUU fishing vessels and operations is among the most significant challenges in mitigating the global issue. There are numerous and sometimes complex methods that IUU fishing vessels use to hide their identities, actions, or locations, including:

  • AIS Darkness and Spoofing

  • Record Forgery and Fraud

  • Corruption

  • Physical Ship Alterations

  • False Flags

  • Licensing Deception

  • Illicit Transshipments

While countries and organizations around the world are working to solve the challenges associated with IUU fishing operations, there is no single solution to stop these activities. Instead, governments and private organizations need to enhance their commitments to maritime security and build robust international networks for information sharing.

What Technologies Are Available to Identify IUU Fishing Vessels?

Until recently, the surveillance of coastal waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) was done using patrol ships, aircraft, and vessel transmission data from technology like Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). While effective in targeted areas, these monitoring techniques don’t satisfy the oversight of massive areas, and technology like AIS systems can simply be turned off by those who wish to operate unmonitored.

However, other forms of technology and information networks exist to supplement traditional vessel monitoring for enhanced maritime awareness - creating different methods for authorities to operate. These include:

  • Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS)

  • Visible and Infrared Imaging

  • Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)

  • Radio Frequency (RF) Emissions

Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS)

Vessel monitoring systems (VMS) are space-based surveillance systems that use satellites to monitor a given location and the movements of commercial fishing vessels within US territorial waters. VMS systems use satellite and cellular communications data from vessel transponders that some ships must carry by law. The transponders send position reports, similar to AIS, that include vessel ID, timestamps, dates, and GPS positions - all of which are digitally mapped and displayed.

VMS supports many use-cases, including various law enforcement initiatives or to help maritime authorities focus their time and efforts on defined target areas that have the highest potential for maritime law and regulation violations - often involving fishing regulations, quotas, and conservation efforts like the Endangered Species Act or the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Today, the VMS program monitors over 4,000 vessels, operating 24 hours per day with near-perfect accuracy. Officials expect the monitoring load to grow in the future, so the VMS program is preparing for the uptick in traffic.

Visible and Infrared Imaging

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) is a relatively new technology suite operated by a NASA satellite called the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership. The satellite carries the highly-sensitive VIR camera, which scans the entirety of the earth’s surface every night in search of dark vessels using bright lights to illuminate their decks or the surrounding water to attract species like squid.

While the VIIRS sensor does a great job detecting vessel lights at night, it takes effort to determine which lights are used by dark vessels. Between the suite’s low resolution and various environmental challenges like moonlight reflection from clouds, observations with this technology are limited when used as the sole monitoring technology.

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), often paired with AI and ML technology, can detect dark vessels day or night and under nearly all weather conditions. SAR imaging bypasses some of the primary challenges with traditional satellite imaging for vessel monitoring. Still, near-shore and offshore objects, including ships, are relatively small and operate in vast areas - making it imperative to grow and enhance the capabilities of paired ML technology for tracking dark vessels.

Radio Frequency (RF) Emissions

Radio Frequency (RF) data is an emerging technology that is quickly being adopted by maritime monitoring and enforcement agencies. RF data, sometimes called RF emissions, are emitted by ships when they operate - and companies like Spire Global use satellite receivers to collect and monitor a wide range of RF data from maritime vessels.

Satellites can locate the source of RF emissions from things like radio communication systems - providing authorities with a unique RF data signature that is difficult to spoof or manipulate. If a ship operator turns off their AIS systems to go dark, RF emissions are used to confirm or refute a vessel’s position. While RF data alone is often not enough to track or identify dark ships, it is a valuable tool in conjunction with SAR or visual imaging systems.

Quantitative Risk Assessments: A Key Component Of Effectively Monitoring for IUU Fishing

A key component of effectively identifying and monitoring dark vessels involved in IUU fishing is moving from qualitative to quantitative risk assessments. While risk profiling for IUU fishing is still a new strategy, some fundamental indicators and guidelines are under development to mitigate the risks.

A recent study identified nine high-level criteria for effective quantitative risk assessment.

  1. Vessel Validity Indicators: Static AIS data, including MMSI and IMO numbers.

  2. Vessel Tampering Indicators: Gaps in AIS data transmission or suspected AIS spoofing.

  3. Owner and Crew Information: Previous incursions and country of origin for the crew, captain, or owners.

  4. Vessel History: Where the vessel is from, its age, changes in flag state, and transits over the past six months (port calls, EEZs, etc.).

  5. Rendezvous Indicators: Indications of meeting with other vessels at sea, sheltering in low-oversight areas, or operating near EEZs.

  6. Vessel Movement: Transit anomalies, rendezvous, loitering, or strange AIS tracks.

  7. Cargo Indicators: Unusual cargo volumes, unusual fish stocks, and unusual vessel size.

  8. Fishing Licenses: Appropriate fishing licenses for operating areas, including the appropriate fishing equipment for the license.

  9. Fishing Locations: Geospatial indicators of overlap with legal fisheries.

While each of the nine overarching criteria covers one aspect of quantitative analysis, multiple subcategories fall under each - making it imperative that maritime authorities continue to build and improve risk criteria.

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