Big Data meets Transhipments at Sea / by Francisco Blaha

Transhipments (the unloading of all or any of the fish on board a fishing vessel to another vessel at sea or in port) per se are an integral part of fisheries, particularly of those involving DWFN (Distant Water Fishing Nations). As an example, it would be economically ruinous for a Taiwanese or Chinese FV to get back to their home port to unload, hence the practice to transship. Even for vessels flagged in the Pacific, as it seems to be the case, particularly when the beneficial owners are nationals of these DWFN (i.e. Kiribati vessels tranship in Tuvalu, PNG in FSM and Marshalls, Solomons in Marshalls, etc)

 Global patterns of transshipment for different fishing gears

Global patterns of transshipment for different fishing gears

Transhipments in port areas, are easier to manage and control, and I have been working on this a lot over the years (a bit of a speciality actually), but the ones at sea are the problem. And this is being highlighted in two papers very recent papers: “Identifying Global Patterns of Transhipment Behaviour” and “Global hot spots of transhipment of fish catch at sea” and I recommend you read both!

I correspond with Nathan Miller (one of the authors on both papers on transhipment logistics), but I was very interested to see that Boris Worm, that back in 2006 predicted that there would be a global collapse of fish species for 2048, but since them he adopted less dramatic and better-studied views.

Both papers are quite illuminating, but before we dig deeper into them, let me explain a few things.

Transhipment is regulated at the regional, sub-regional, and national level in the WCPFC.  The sub-regional level is represented by a prohibition on at sea transhipment adopted first by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) and subsequently by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA). At the national level, Pacific island FFA member countries (PICs) control various aspects of transshipping using licensing conditions as well as regulatory instruments.

For Purse Seiners the ban of transhipment at sea in the FFA membership are well enforced, for longliners there are some exemptions, and those are then arguably controlled, but is never easy… 

But when we get to the High Seas (or better named Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction – ABNJ) it used to be VERY complicated because of the issues around jurisdictions. As soon as both vessels are in ABNJ all elements of Monitoring, Control and Surveillance head back to the tenuous concept of Flag State responsibility.

And here we have two potential scenarios that converge in one; either a) the Flag State doesn’t really give a shit for many economic/political reasons (i.e. many of the DWFN), or b) they can’t / have other priorities ( i.e. developing countries with “Open Registries” – FoCs, that do not have MCS capacities in function of their fleet size and distribution, the registry is offshore based, and does not respond to the government, etc.) and these weak flag states are predominantly used by nationals of DWFN to flag even more vessels… so basically neither side gives a shit.

Ideally, when a transhipment at sea is to occur, the fishing vessel is to request authorisation of its flag state (if the flag state was to allow them) based on a series of conditions being met, information provided, vessel VMS track being analysed, etc. (similar to what an authorization to use port should entitle), at the same time the master of the carrier (the vessel receiving the fish), should not receive the fish without the authorization of its flag state and details of the authorisation from the fishing vessel, today’s technologies allow for that. And of course, the presence of an observer or at least of EM (cameras on board) should be mandatory. (Needless to say, the port state where that vessel would unload should refuse landings if all this info, is not provided prior arrival, or even better under a eCDS).

Why does this don't happen? Well because the las of political will of the DWFN to play a part in the RFMOs that have jurisdiction over the ABNJ under their mandate. If an RFMO mandates the explained sequence of events under substantial scrutiny and an eCDS, then it has to happen. At present does not and when you find something, the legal framework becomes very difficult. 

I remember the case a few years ago in the Solomon Islands when a licensed TW longliner was discovered transhipping on the high seas. Yet, the attempt to prosecute the vessel for a breach of its fishing license was frustrated when the government’s legal advice realise that had no extra-territorial powers that would enable such a prosecution. 

The figure below from the "Global Patterns" papers on Flag Pairings, makes total sense to me. We know that in the region Taiwan uses Panama and Vanuatu as flags of convenience and that Korea uses Kiribati, the pairing proves that.

 Flag pairings for fishing and transshipment vessels involved in encounters, for the fishing vessel flags with greatest number of encounters. Russian- and US-flagged fishing vessels predominantly associate with common-flagged transshipment vessels, whereas Asian-flagged fishing vessels associate with diversely flagged transshipment vessels. Values identify number of events involving each flag pair.

Flag pairings for fishing and transshipment vessels involved in encounters, for the fishing vessel flags with greatest number of encounters. Russian- and US-flagged fishing vessels predominantly associate with common-flagged transshipment vessels, whereas Asian-flagged fishing vessels associate with diversely flagged transshipment vessels. Values identify number of events involving each flag pair.

Hence, against the present situation, I totally welcome these type of papers. Yes, I know, there are limitations in the use of IAS for MCS (something the authors acknowledge and I wrote about before). But the genie is out of the lamp, and while IAS is not new, only recently we had the computing capacity and funds available to tackle the mammoth task of analysing such vast amounts of data. And the effect is profoundly disrupting, even is just by bringing prior impossible transparency to this area. 

Just as an example, I remember last year I got blocked out of my access to VMS and needed to find which vessels were in Majuro for my work there while I was off-island, I just went to GFW from my son’s computer, and that was it, I had all the vessels unloading there. It was a big eye-opener for me, the whole secrecy, confidentiality and all that type of reasons that industry and some nations have around the proprietary nature of VMS is gone through the window. Even now, when I want to see the track of a vessel from a flag state that no share its VMS track in the region, I just open another window on my browser and that it… the fact that I cannot use that data for building prosecution is almost irrelevant to me… that vessel is not invisible anymore.

The papers itself are good reading, and the primary value for me is that they verify things that I knew without haven being able to quantify them so far, and also found out some new stuff.  But mostly because they are a window to the “power” behind the computational capabilities of these guys. Yes, I found out some details and assumptions that I may look at differently… but I’m a deep believer in “don't let the perfect, get on the way of the good”. Perhaps be good for the authors to have a fisherman or sector specialist as co-author or at least as per reviewer, but that is all.

But when I read this papers, my mind wander into thinking on how much could be gained if the AIS data houses (in this case SkyTruth, but also OceanMid/Catapult) could have a detailed MoU with the RFMOs and the regional organization if work with (FFA/SPC), where not only data sources, but overall computing capacity and intelligence analysis could be shared. I imagine many of the algorithms being developed in these papers, mining the datasets managed by the WCPFC via FFA and SPC, results could be amazing… and even if you could not force the DWFN to act upon many of the cases found, “name and shame” would do a slow work towards the gradual strengthening of the legal obligations around the transhipments at sea practices until eventually, a strong system is adopted (and hopefully an RFMO wide eCDS)

I have adviced Nathan and Brad (from OceanMid/Catapult), as well as my bosses in the regional organisations to approach each other for collaboration. Yes, of course, the fact that one side governmentally managed and the other is private/NGO type does not make things easy, but in my humble opinion, there is a lot to be gained for both sides… 

I love to combine both datasets, to go deeper in the 1st fishing gears shown in the figure below and identify not only the "serial vessels" but the pairing patterns and the skippers involved. 

 Spatial patterns of landed versus transshipped fishing effort. (from the Global Hot Spots paper)

Spatial patterns of landed versus transshipped fishing effort. (from the Global Hot Spots paper)

But then I’m just an ex-fisherman with a laptop, I don't have any influnece as an independet advisor... is just that I would love to be more involved with these tools, and be able to "mine" the data sets available at the regional organisations