Fuel Tankers Help Highlight Illegal Fishing Hotspots

Date: January 17, 2019

Source: Hakai Magazine

Author: Kimberley Riskas

Bunker vessels are one of the most connected ships at sea; tracking them could pinpoint clusters of illegal fishing.

Fuel tankers may help track down illegal fishing and unravel the criminal networks behind it, according to an Australian study.

Across the world’s oceans, up to US $23-billion is lost annually to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, a crime that includes everything from poaching to fishing with dynamite. But IUU fishing is incredibly difficult to monitor and many of the vessels involved in the illicit practice operate far from shore, where surveillance is scant.

Under international law, large vessels are required to broadcast their locations using an onboard automatic identification system (AIS). Originally developed to help captains avoid collisions, the tracking system is increasingly being used to monitor illegal activity. A recent study used AIS to track refrigerated cargo ships (or reefers), which collect catches from smaller vessels at sea, over time to try to detect IUU fishing. And fishing watchdogs check to see when large vessels turn off their AIS, as “going dark” might be a signal of suspicious activity.

Now Jessica Ford, a research statistician at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and lead author of the Australian study, proposes a novel way to pinpoint areas where IUU fishing might be happening: by tracking the movements of refueling tankers called bunker vessels. These are lifelines for ships at sea—especially for those trying to avoid inspections by port authorities. Bunkers are more connected to other ships than reefers, Ford has found, and are also fewer in number, which makes them easier to follow.


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