Fishy on High Seas: Study Sheds Light on Shadowy Fishing Practice

Global patterns of transshipment behavior illustrating encounters (red) and loitering events (black). Highest densities appear in the Russian Far East and the Barents Sea, outside the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of South America, within the EEZs of African nations, and across the Equatorial Pacific. (Dalhousie University/ Global Fishing Watch/SkyTruth)

(CN) – Knowing where your seafood comes from will now be easier to track, thanks to new research that shows where and when fishing vessels unload their cargo at sea.

Fishing vessels often unload their catch directly onto another ship while at sea rather than journey back to a port, a process known as transshipment. While transshipment increases the efficiency of fishing by eliminating trips back to port for fishing vessels, it often takes place far away from the eyes of regulators and creates “major challenges” for law enforcement – including enabling illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, according to a report issued Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Researchers from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth applied satellite technology to map where fishing boats are transferring their catch to cargo vessels at sea.

The work will help regulators monitor catches and let consumers know where their seafood comes from. Since fishing catches from different boats often are combined during transshipment, “We often have no idea what was caught legally and what wasn’t,” Kristina Boerder, a doctoral student at Dalhousie University, said.

Transshipment has also been implicated in other crimes like trafficking of weapons, drugs and people, the report said.

Now, researchers are bringing “unprecedented transparency” to transshipment of fish on the high seas, Boerder said.

“So far, this practice was out of sight, out of mind, but now that we can track it using satellites, we can begin to know where our fish truly comes from,” Dr. Boris Worm, a marine biology professor at Dalhousie University, said. “I believe we are entering a new age of fisheries management, where for the first time in our history we can truly see what goes on beyond our shores.”

Researchers at Dalhousie University, Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth tracked the behavior of refrigerated cargo vessels to determine when and where transshipment occurs and which ships were most involved in this practice.

Researchers also traced seafood supply chains for tuna fisheries in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

The research provides the most complete, global view of transshipment, researchers said.

“These studies serve as examples for how big data experts, nongovernmental organizations and academics can come together to address critical, global challenges that were up to now too large, too complicated, or simply too hard to observe,” Nate Miller, a data scientist at SkyTruth, said.

During its research from 2012 to 2017, the Dalhousie University researchers observed 501 refrigerated vessels that connected with 1,856 fishing vessels in what were likely 10,510 transshipment events.

The research showed that transshipment is taking place in all oceans, but is more common in distinct “hot spot” off West Africa, Russia and in the tropical Pacific, the report said.

“I think this really touches everyone who eats fish, and at a time when people are more concerned about where their food comes from, this knowledge will be really helpful,” Boerder said. “A better understanding of what happens to seafood before it reaches our plates will hopefully help consumers buy legally and sustainably caught fish.”


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