The ‘dark fleet’: Global Fishing Watch shines a light on illegal catches

The ‘dark fleet’: Global Fishing Watch shines a light on illegal catches

Low light imaging data being used to expose unregulated and unreported fishing on the high seas

A fishing vessel
 China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea account for well over two-thirds of high seas fishing. Photograph: Laura Lezza/Getty Images

New data is being used to expose fleets of previously unmonitored fishing vessels on the high seas, in what campaigners hope will lead to the eradication of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

Global Fishing Watch (GFW) has turned low light imaging data collected by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into the first publicly available real-time map showing the location and identity of thousands of vessels operating at night in waters that lie beyond national jurisdiction.

More than 85% of the “dark fleet” detections include smaller vessels that are not fitted with transponders and larger ones that have switched off their tracking systems to avoid detection, according to GFW, which launched the map on Friday to mark World Oceans Day.

The data, collected by the NOAA’s visible infrared imaging radiometer suite, is being used to track a fleet of about 200 mostly Chinese vessels at the edge of Peru’s economic exclusion zone.

The monitoring, conducted by GFW, a non-profit organisation campaigning for greater transparency in the fishing industry, and the conservation group Oceana, reveals that about 20% of the Chinese vessels are not broadcasting via automatic tracking systems, raising suspicions they are operating illegally.

The report on the high seas activity coincides with the launch by GFW of the first ever real-time view of transshipment, which enables fishing boats to transfer their catch to refrigerated cargo vessels and remain at sea for months, or even years, at a time but still get their catch to the market.


“By harnessing big data and artificial intelligence, we’re able to generate a clearer view into the often shady practice of transshipment,” said Paul Woods, chief technology officer at GFW.

“This data is now freely available to governments, NGOs and academia to use and interrogate, and support global efforts to strengthen monitoring and enforcement to eradicate illegal fishing.”

Four countries – China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea – account for well over two-thirds of high seas fishing, including 500 vessels belonging to Japan’s distant water fleet.

“If you could get the North Asian countries fully engaged in strengthening regulation of high seas fisheries, you would go a long way towards solving the problem,” said Quentin Hanich, head of the fisheries governance research programme at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security.

As a major market for Chinese processed and re-exported seafood, Japan is well placed to use its influence to improve traceability and transparency, Hanich added.

“China is still in an expansionist stage when it comes to high seas fisheries, and it’s still reluctant to agree to many of the types of measures we need to put in place,” he told the Guardian. “Japan really is the pathway to bringing China in. It’s crucial that we collaboratively develop high seas governance that China is fully engaged in.”

The need for fleets to cut fuel and other costs was highlighted in a new report claiming that fishing in more than half the world’s high seas fishing grounds would be unprofitable without billions of dollars in government subsidies.

“Governments subsidised high seas fishing with $4.2bn in 2014, far exceeding the net economic benefit of fishing in the high seas,” said the report, published this week in the journal Science Advances.

Its lead author Enric Sala, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, said: “Governments are throwing massive amounts of taxpayer money into a destructive industry.”



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