IMO Numbers for Fishing Vessels / by Francisco Blaha

Following the lifting of the exemption of fishing vessels to the IMO Ship Numbering Scheme, we should encourage all fishing vessels to get a IMO number.

They can apply at 

Orion I. Mar del Plata, Argentina. Photo by M. Cappizano

Orion I. Mar del Plata, Argentina. Photo by M. Cappizano

What are IMO numbers?

The IMO introduced its Ship Identification Number Scheme in 1987 to help prevent maritime fraud and enhance safety and security; it has successfully served for decades to identify merchant vessels and is widely recognized by users and stakeholders as the best available global identification system for ships. In 1996, the system became mandatory for cargo and passenger ships. IHS Maritime, a division of the global information and analytics company IHS, administers the scheme on behalf of the IMO.

The unique seven-digit vessel number, preceded by the letters “IMO,” provides the foundation of IHS Maritime’s global maritime database. The number stays with a vessel until it is scrapped and never changes, regardless of the ship’s owner, country of registration or name. The records based on the IMO number provide an independent audit trail for each vessel; IHS Maritime continually updates and cross-checks this information against multiple data sources.

Unlike merchant vessels, automobiles, and even cellphones, fishing vessels are not required to have unique identifying numbers that stay with them from construction to scrapping. Although fishing vessels have names, call signs for radio transmissions, and other identifiers, these are not permanent and can be changed by owners quickly and easily.

Taiwanese longliner operating in the Pacific

Taiwanese longliner operating in the Pacific

The lack of mandatory, unique, and permanent identifying numbers makes it difficult for authorities to distinguish specific vessels engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated, or IUU, fishing, and to track misconduct and gather evidence when they suspect unlawful activity.

As a result, vessel owners, even those who have been blacklisted for IUU fishing, can circumvent control measures and continue to fish without being traced. They can operate for years with no accurate record of their activities, operating condition, or compliance status. 

The solution: mandatory, unique, and permanent ship identification numbers in accordance with the standards of the International Maritime Organization, or IMO.