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Commercial fishing ships are ‘going dark’ and here's why experts say that’s a problem

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In a new investigative report, the nonprofit Oceana highlights four instances where commercial fishing vessels possibly turned off their public tracking systems, which is known as "going dark" at sea.

When a vessel's Automatic Identification System (AIS) is turned off, information about that vessel's identity, speed and location are no longer accessible to the public. Disabling this technology can put the crew and vessel at risk, although it is sometimes done for safety reasons, according to Oceana's report.

However, Oceana analyst Lacey Malarky said that these systems are more than just a safety mechanism.

"These public tracking systems can not only improve the maritime safety of a vessel, but this added transparency can help curb illegal fishing and increase compliance of existing regulations and laws," she said.

Although the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that it is "difficult to estimate" the value or amount of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing that occurs across the globe each year, several reports have attempted to do so.

In the 2009 study "Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing," researchers reviewed the IUU fishing situation in 54 countries and estimated that "the total value of current illegal and unreported fishing losses worldwide are between $10 billion and $23.5 billion annually, representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes [12 and 28 million tons]."

Oceana uses the technology platform, Global Fishing Watch, to monitor worldwide commercial fishing activity. The platform can detect when an AIS signal has disappeared for more than 48 hours and uses an algorithm to sort out any gaps in AIS data that were a result of low satellite coverage or high vessel density. What's left, is a dataset that reflects instances where vessels went "dark," possibly as a result of the crew intentionally turning off the public tracking system.

"These public tracking systems can not only improve the maritime safety of a vessel, but this added transparency can help curb illegal fishing and increase compliance of existing regulations and laws."
Lacey Malarky

Out of the four case studies described in Oceana's report, two vessels went "dark" to public tracking systems near no-take marine protected areas, which are government designated zones where activities such as fishing, hunting, logging, mining and drilling are prohibited.

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Malarky added that "going dark" doesn't necessarily mean these vessels "were fishing illegally or that they entered an area that they weren't authorized to be in, but it does raise concerns and warrants further investigation."

That's why Oceana is calling on governments to require commercial fishing vessels to "continually transmit tamper-resistant AIS technology."

One reason the nonprofit is pushing for governments to do this is because the other tracking system that's commonly used, which is known as Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), often can only be viewed by government or intergovernmental monitoring and enforcement agencies. AIS can broadcast a signal as frequently as every few seconds, whereas VMS usually does so ever hour, Malarky explained.

When used together, Oceana's report notes that AIS and VMS can offer a more complete dataset for monitoring fishing activity. That dataset, however, is difficult to come by because not only is VMS data private, although the International Maritime Organization requires large ships to be equipped with AIS, governments are allowed to "decide if and how these requirements apply to fishing vessels," according to the report.

Malarky said Oceana recommends that governments require all of their commercial fishing vessels and those operating within their exclusive economic zone to use both AIS and VMS in order to increase transparency.

If for some reason, there is a legitimate reason to disable the system -- such as the threat of piracy -- Malarky said the nonprofit recommends that this be reported either to the country where the vessel is registered or to the country whose national waters the vessel is operating within.

Doing so, Malarky said, creates a public record which makes it possible to "cross check and validate that it [disabling the device] was for a legitimate safety concern and not because they were trying to hide something."

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