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Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Dark Ships

Ocean conservationists from watchdog group Oceana have started tracking illegal activity of commercial fishing vessels through satellite data.

This data comes from a public tracking system called the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which was originally designed as a safety mechanism for vessels to avoid collisions at sea. Over time, it can also be used to monitor and track vessel movements.
Image result for marine traffic

Using Global Fishing Watch, which provides a never-before-seen view of commercial fishing activity worldwide, the following events that occurred in illegal fishing hotspots where a ship’s AIS device was possibly turned off have been identified:

A Panamanian commercial fishing vessel went dark for 15 days on the west side of the Galápagos Marine Reserve before it began transmitting signals again on the east side.

An Australian commercial fishing vessel appeared to disable its AIS near the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve on 10 separate occasions over one year.

A Spanish commercial fishing vessel appeared to repeatedly go dark for at least 21 times when leaving the port of Dakar in Senegal and approaching the Gambia’s national waters over a one-and-a-half-year period.

Another Spanish commercial fishing vessel appeared to turn off its AIS signal consistently over a seven-month period while operating in the national waters of at least five African countries and on the high seas.

Though it’s hard to identify between intentional disabling of the AIS, equipment malfunction, or satellite coverage issues, this question is now being raised: Is going dark from public tracking systems illegal?

The quick answer to that question is NO. Oceana noted that going dark is not necessarily illegal, but this behaviour may indicate that the ships are doing something suspicious. To answer that question with another question: Why would a vessel hide its tracks if its operations are in good faith?

A ship’s crew may turn off its AIS broadcast for legitimate reasons such as evading detection by pirates, but this may also indicate that a vessel is hiding its illegal activities like fishing in no-take protected areas or entering another country’s waters without authorisation.

Oceana is now urging governments around the world to require all commercial fishing vessels to be equipped with and continually transmit tamper-resistant AIS technology. Increased transparency can help deter illegal fishing, prevent unauthorised fishing in a nation’s waters and improve monitoring of fishing around the world. It can also improve maritime safety, help combat illegal fishing and increase compliance of laws and regulations.

All for now,

Brad Skelton

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