As I commented here, port agents have a busy life in some ports in the Pacific. They are the nexus in between the land and most of the necessities of the fishing vessel and the fish, from engine parts to certificates for the fish, from helicopter fuel to the observer accommodation while waiting for the vessel.
But critically, they are the ones that let authorities know the vessel is coming to port and often provided all of the information required to the fisheries administration, should any be required at all.
These processes and a lack of real time reporting during the trip provide opportunities for vessels to hide offending. Ideally the vessel should request entry via e-reporting tool. This would give the fisheries administration key advantages as it would oblige the vessels to use e-reporting tools of their choice, provided it was compatible with the administrations system, otherwise they cannot notify their arrival and request entry to port as required by Ports State Measures and subsequently they would not be able to unload.
If vessels were to request port entry via an App, inspectors in port would be able to use this time for advance notification to interrogate the logsheets in advance of arrival. They could analyse volumes, positions, days of unusual fishing and this would allow verification and the development of intelligence through the use of other tools such as VMS, AIS and e-observer (if they have it).
The "advance notice for port entry element in the Apps" has been talked about, but for now, as a whole, most regions in the world depends on the agents, and very little information is captured on these Agents, on the whole, especially for a group that are so influential in the movement and vessels and product.
Despite there being little knowledge held on these agents, there is currently no past or future study in the Pacific that has assessed and considered agents as a unique and vital player in the industry.
Value to PSM
In principle there is no role assigned to agents in law. However in practice they are the nexus in between the arriving vessel and the fisheries administrations and therefore vital for PSM and CDS. Yet a more fundamental issue is whether some of the services provided by agents are in fact needed for PSM? The role of agents has become so valuable partly because of the deficiencies of national fishing authorities port management structures.
Should the national authorities be able to organise and communicate with vessel themselves? Why is it that agents are used to transmit and sometimes collect data from fishing vessels?
If the argument for the use of agents is based on the view that working with opaque and bureaucratic governments is too complicated and time-consuming for the industry, the answer lies in improving government services, not in establishing a lucrative business sector for well-connected, but ultimately unaccountable intermediaries.
Ideal Structures to Close the Gaps Around Vessel Agents
Operationally, this gives us two options: either their formalisation or the removal of the use of vessel agents for as a reporting intermediary.
There should also be a public registry of agents, a minimum amount of information to be provided and responsibilities to be assumed under an established way to communicate with the fisheries administrations. Port entry should be requested via the Web Portal/IMS of the port state, with the same data fields than the App plus all the compliance elements (i.e. licenses, volumes on board, etc) but the vessels agent would impute the data and upload the required information
For this concept to work on a e-based system, it should be a port entry function (yet to be built) on the ER Apps for licenced vessels (foreign and domestic) to request port entry to the central fisheries authority of the port state and from then to the identified port of entry.
As vessels using the App are licensed, hence port access (as requested by WCPFC CMM PSM) is granted, by the simple fact that they are using the tool and reporting catch.
Under the present ER App all important details from PSM are covered (i.e. VMS, local and regional licence, volumes on board, port of last call, etc.), so the vessel request is sent to the intended port of call for the vessel screening and authorization (or denial) of port use, including the need of full or targeted arrival inspections. This information could also be shared with the port authority, other line agencies and notify coastal and flag States as appropriate.
In the case of vessels not using ER (such as some longliners) and carriers, port entry should be requested via the Web Portal/IMS of the port state, with the same data fields as the previously discussed application plus all the required compliance elements (i.e. licenses, volumes on board, etc). In these cases the vessels agent would be required to input the data and upload the required information on behalf of the vessel. If the vessel is on an IUU list port entry will be denied and enforcement and other State agencies advised.
For vessels that have been approved entry, the screening of the vessels would take place incorporating all available data streams and a decision is made on the requirement for more detailed vessel inspection, or not, prior authorising port use.
For the region
As noted earlier, very little information is captured on Vessel Agents, on the whole, across the Pacific and especially for a group that are so influential in the movement and vessels and product. In some situations, MCS staff from fisheries administrations are dependent on vessel agents for facilitating access (both literally in terms of getting to the vessel and operationally in terms of timings) to vessels for inspection, thereby removing the independence and autonomy of the administration and their regulation of the industry.
Agents across the region vary in their backgrounds and associations with the vessels, some are independent, others relate to the traders, some to vessel operators or business conglomerates on shore. Most agents are foreign nationals and not Pacific Islanders, but this is not the rule.
In some cases, agents are actually quite close and familiar to the fisheries administrators, since they interact with them on a constant basis. Yet they can be quite opaque in their accessibility, even if they have fundamental information that can be of benefit for the authorities and fisheries economists.
Currently in the Pacific these vessel agents fill a need, but it is a self-perpetuating need and more work needs to be done to formalise the role through licensing, or remove these agents from the vessel reporting requirements that are so pivotal to CDS and PSM.
And as I said many times, this is an area I love to investigate… so feel free to contact me if it is something you keen to research and have funds available.
Disclaimer: This text is a small part of a bigger job I did with my colleague Damian Johnson