A Sea of Shadows: Uncovering Illegal Fishing Boats

By Hillary Kaufman March 6, 2024 | 7 MIN READ

Agriculture Technology

Conservation

Food Production

Food Regulations & Policy

Food Security

The Dirt

A recent study reports that 75% of all global fishing fleets are considered “dark vessels” – untraceable ships that operate under the radar, illegally capturing seafood while damaging biodiversity, local economies, and quality of life for millions. So ask yourself: do you know where your seafood comes from?

Global Food

A Sea of Shadows: Uncovering Illegal Fishing Boats

A recent study reports that 75% of all global fishing fleets are considered “dark vessels” – untraceable ships illegally capturing seafood while damaging biodiversity, local economies, and quality of life for millions. So we asked ourselves: do we know where our seafood comes from?

Agriculture Technology

Conservation

Food Production

Food Regulations & Policy

Food Security

By Hillary Kaufman March 6, 2024 | 7 MIN READ

The Dirt

A recent study reports that 75% of all global fishing fleets are considered “dark vessels” – untraceable ships that operate under the radar, illegally capturing seafood while damaging biodiversity, local economies, and quality of life for millions. So ask yourself: do you know where your seafood comes from?

Growing up in northern New England, we were spoiled with abundant fresh, local seafood. It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized how good I had it eating freshly caught fish. The United States imports 70-80% of its seafood, mostly from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador.   

My new reality was pulling out my phone at the seafood counter in my grocery store to find out where the catch originated. But with confusing adjectives, like “line caught,” “wild,” “farmed,” “no antibiotic-free,” “pole caught,” and “sustainable,”… I ended up just sticking with salmon farmed in Norway, where I knew the standard was high.

Turns out, I had every reason to be overly cautious. A study released in the January 2024 issue of Nature reports that 75% of global fishing vessels are untraceable. Research jointly conducted by Global Fishing Watch, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, UC Santa Barbara, and SkyTruth, gave concrete insights into this murky world of “dark vessels”. These stealthy ships roam the seas, plundering marine resources without a trace.

Understanding Dark Vessel Fishing

Dark vessel fishing ships operate well beyond the reach of regulation and oversight, hence the name ‘dark’.  Their impropriety threatens the delicate balance of marine ecosystems across the globe, not to mention posing a significant concern to global food security, economic stability, and the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the ocean for sustenance.

The fishing industry has experienced a slowdown in recent years. Prolonged COVID shutdowns and overfishing in previous decades, as well as an increase in on-land and shore-based aquaculture operations, have contributed to decreased demand. Despite this, seafood remains a $250 billion market, with an estimated loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) activity continues to proliferate, prompted by an increasing demand for fish. As long as there are fish to capture, these stealthy ships will attempt to reap profits by exploiting fishing grounds beyond the reach of authorities.

IUU fishing vessels use a variety of tactics to evade detection, from turning off or manipulating their automatic identification system (AIS) transponders to operating in remote and poorly monitored ocean regions. The result is a cat-and-mouse game between authorities and illicit operators, with significant implications for marine biodiversity and the sustainability of global fisheries.

“A new industrial revolution has been emerging in our seas undetected—until now. On land, we have detailed maps of almost every road and building on the planet.

In contrast, growth in our ocean has been largely hidden from public view.”

 

          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Identifying Dark Vessels

The study, conducted by an international team of researchers, analyzed satellite data and harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to track the movements of dark vessel fishing boats to identify hotspots of illegal fishing activity and gain a deeper understanding of the factors driving these activities.

The study’s findings paint a troubling picture of the prevalence of dark vessel fishing across various regions of the world, even in marine protected areas like the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Their study also found more than 25 percent of transport and energy vessels are considered “dark.”

“Historically, vessel activity has been poorly documented, limiting our understanding of how the world’s largest public resource—the ocean—is being used.

By combining space technology with state-of-the-art machine learning, we mapped undisclosed industrial activity at sea on a scale never done before.”

 

          Fernando Paolo, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Collecting and analyzing the incomprehensible amount of data (2 thousand terabytes worth) needed to find this specific information was no small feat. Thankfully, these brilliant researchers mined disparate sets of public data to pinpoint exact locations of fishing vessels, both traceable and non-traceable.

They started with amassing satellite images of coastal waters worldwide from the European Space Agency from 2017 to 2021. They then created proprietary automated technology to identify which of those vessels were fishing boats. Next, the researchers compared images of the ships with public records disclosing their AIS location to determine which vessels did not broadcast their whereabouts.

Armed with this information, they create a “heat map” to show legal and illegal fishing activity across the globe:

dark vessel fishing, A Sea of Shadows: Uncovering Illegal Fishing Boats

Targeting Dark Vessel Locations

One of the key insights revealed by the research is the concentration of dark vessel fishing activity in some geographic regions.

dark vessel fishing, A Sea of Shadows: Uncovering Illegal Fishing Boats

Despite public AIS records indicating a somewhat distributed sprawl across most continents, these researchers prove that most illegal activity occurs in Asia.

The study identified several regions in Asia as the primary hotspots of IUU activity, notably Southeast and East Asia.

These regions are characterized by complex maritime disputes, porous borders, a vast array of fish species, and limited law enforcement presence to oversee farmed aquaculture practices, environmental protections, water toxicity, and many other factors.

“Publicly available data wrongly suggests that Asia and Europe have similar amounts of fishing within their borders, but our mapping reveals that Asia dominates — for every 10 fishing vessels we found on the water, seven were in Asia while only one was in Europe.

By revealing dark vessels, we have created the most comprehensive public picture of global industrial fishing available.”

 

Jennifer Raynor, study author, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This lethal combination creates fertile ground for dark vessel operators to carry out an unconscionable number of illicit activities, especially in specific hotbeds of IUU activity:

dark vessel fishing, A Sea of Shadows: Uncovering Illegal Fishing BoatsKorean Peninsula

In East Asia, the waters off the Korean Peninsula have become premier battlegrounds in the fight against IUU fishing, with crustaceans, shellfish, and finfish populating the waters.

Also of note, South Korea is the largest global consumer of seafood. Surprisingly, 65% of their seafood is imported, despite their seemingly abundant waters.

dark vessel fishing, A Sea of Shadows: Uncovering Illegal Fishing BoatsBay of Bengal

Similarly, the Bay of Bengal off the coast of South Asia’s Bangladesh and Myanmar, has emerged as a hotspot of illegal fishing activity, where 100% of all fishing activity is not tracked.

And to make matters worse, some fishers off of these shores use poison to catch the area’s abundance of finfish and shrimp. This not only damages the health of those who consume the poisoned products, but it also endangers the largest mangrove forest ecosystem in the world.

Strengthening Global Cooperation & Enforcement Efforts

This study can serve as a loud and clear warning sign for all of us. Addressing the scourge of dark vessel fishing requires international cooperation, significant investment in monitoring and onsite enforcement, and promoting sustainable fishing practices are all essential components of a comprehensive strategy to combat IUU fishing.

Though daunting, this undertaking would help recover an estimated global economic loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion annually. Not to mention the restoration of vulnerable coastal communities and local economies suffering from devastating poverty and food insecurity.

Furthermore, this methodology can be easily adapted to tackle other global issues, like climate change. Mapping all vessels can improve estimates of oceanic carbon emissions and track marine degradation.

“Previously, this type of satellite monitoring was only available to those who could pay for it. Now it is freely available to all nations.

This study marks the beginning of a new era in ocean management and transparency.”

 

          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Much can be learned from this team of researchers in terms of determination to source discreet data sets around the globe, innovative implementation of artificial intelligence, and cross-organization cooperation. If we follow suit, we can find new ways to shine a light on these activities and hold those responsible for their crimes.

What We Can Do Today

We can empower ourselves right away by realizing the trickle-down effect of our everyday purchase decisions. If we don’t buy fish products sourced from countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and other areas of the world with rampant dark vessels, fewer IUU ships will bother fishing in less lucrative territories.

As for discrete locations, if you prefer wild-caught, stick with fish caught in the northern shores of Europe. For farmed, consider fish from reputable countries like Norway, Scotland, Canada, and Chile.

Organizations focused on sustainable seafood can provide practical, research-based recommendations, too. Seafood Watch creates helpful guides to better navigate our grocery aisles and stick to more sustainable species and acceptable countries of origin (here’s the Watch’s guide for shrimp). You can also keep an eye out for the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue “MSC” label to stick with sustainable fish species.

dark vessel fishing, A Sea of Shadows: Uncovering Illegal Fishing Boats

Still can’t find the country of origin for the fish you want? Ask someone, whether it’s the associate behind the seafood counter, customer service at the grocery store, or the waiter who must ask the chef. If many of us ask this question wherever we purchase seafood, more industry players will be compelled to start readily providing these details.

The Bottom Line

This study underscores the urgent need for international cooperation to combat illegal fishing and encourage sustainable fishing practices. At home, we can educate ourselves to reduce demand for products sourced from areas with rampant dark vessel activity, with the hope that lowered demand will deter these unconscionable crimes affecting marine life, global food security, and so much more.