What Vessels Do When They Go Dark at Sea?

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Credits: AP Photos/William Pasaribu

When fishing boats go dark at sea, they’re often committing crimes – Heather Welch, for Midland Daily News, mapped where it happens.

Transparency of human activity at sea

In January 2019, the Korean-flagged fishing vessel Oyang 77 sailed south toward international waters off Argentina. The vessel had a known history of nefarious activities, including underreporting its catch and illegally dumping low-value fish to make room in its hold for more lucrative catch.

At 2 a.m. on Jan. 10, the Oyang 77 turned off its location transponder at the edge of Argentina’s exclusive economic zone – a political boundary that divides Argentina’s national waters from international waters, or the high seas. At 9 p.m. on Jan. 11, the Oyang 77 turned its transponder back on and reappeared on the high seas. For the 19 hours when the ship was dark, no information was available about where it had gone or what it did.

In a recent study, I worked with colleagues at Global Fishing Watch, a nonprofit that works to advance ocean governance by increasing transparency of human activity at sea, to show that these periods of missing transponder data contain useful information on where ships go and what they do. And authorities like the International Maritime Organization can use this missing data to help combat illegal activities at sea, such as overfishing and exploiting workers on fishing boats.

Illegal fishing causes economic losses estimated at $US10 billion to $25 billion annually. It also has been linked to human rights violations, such as forced labor and human trafficking. Better information about how often boats go dark at sea can help governments figure out where and when these activities may be taking place.

Going dark at sea

The high seas are the modern world’s Wild West – a vast expanse of water far from oversight and authority, where outlaws engage in illegal activities like unauthorized fishing and human trafficking. Surveillance there is aided by location transponders, called the Automatic Identification System, or AIS, which works like the Find My iPhone app.

Just as thieves can turn off phone location tracking, ships can disable their AIS transponders, effectively hiding their activities from oversight. Often it’s unclear whether going dark in this way is legal. AIS requirements are based on many factors, including vessel size, what country the vessel is flagged to, its location in the ocean and what species its crew is trying to catch.

A ship that disables its AIS transponder disappears from the view of whomever may be watching, including authorities, scientists and other vessels. For our study, we reviewed data from two private companies that combine AIS data with other signals to track assets at sea. Spire is a constellation of nanosatellites that pick up AIS signals to increase visibility of vessels in remote areas of the world. Orbcomm tracks ships, trucks and other heavy equipment using internet-enabled devices. Then, we used machine learning models to understand what drove vessels to disable their AIS devices.

Examining where and how often such episodes occurred between 2017 and 2019, we found that ships disabled their transponders for around 1.6 million hours each year. This represented roughly 6% of global fishing vessel activity, which as a result is not reflected in global tallies of what types of fish are being caught where.

Vessels frequently went dark on the high-seas edge of exclusive economic zone boundaries, which can obscure illegal fishing in unauthorized locations. That’s what the Oyang 77 was doing in January 2019.

Read the full article here.

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Source: Midland Daily News

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