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Harbouring information: combating illegal fishing

Harbouring information: combating illegal fishing
16 Jan
East African countries are sharing shipping data in order to combat illegal fishing practices

Illegal fishing is considered to be one of the biggest challenges for countries on the Western Indian Ocean coast. The most recent report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation found that ‘today, one out of every five fish is caught illegally in the western Indian Ocean region’. It’s an activity that depletes fish populations, threatens ocean health and steals from local fishing communities.

To fight back against such illegal fishing, eight countries bordering the Western Indian Ocean are using data-sharing technology to share valuable information about sea-going vessels. Named Fish-i, the initiative allows major ports in each country to pool information about criminal fishing activity, instead of spending precious time and resources chasing suspicious vessels across the sea.

Fish-i gives the participating countries (Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Somalia and Tanzania) the option to share remote sensing data in real-time and support each other with on the ground assistance.

‘This intelligence information may include vessels’ movement, vessels calling to port, illegal fish products, vessels fishing position and ownership history,’ says Nicholas Mwanza, chairperson of the Fish-i task force in Kenya. He sees the main benefit as being the latter of these attributes, especially as many vessels can appear legal. For example, some vessels might claim to be another ship, or there may be multiple boats all operating under one valid license.

Sharing data has revealed some surprises. Initially, it was thought that the majority of boat owners were intending on complying with the shipping rules and regulations, and would only occasionally be found to be exploiting loopholes in the rules. In the latest report, however, Fish-i analysts found that ‘a significant number’ of operators set out with illegal intentions, with a remarkable 80 per cent of their investigations revealing intentionally illegal activity.

‘They [boat owners] do this through falsifying information, forging documents, hiding company information behind secretive shelf companies and flags of non-compliance,’ says Sandy Davies, co-creator of Fish-i and co-ordinator of Stop Illegal Fishing, an independent, African-based, non-profit organisation committed to ending the devastating impacts of illegal fishing. More troubling was the revelation that those 26 per cent of reported incidences were also involved in ‘sinister’ crimes, such as smuggling and human trafficking.

To combat the level of illegal activity, Fish-i’s creators have launched ‘VIGILANCE’, a programme, cross-checking the documentation and appearance of 500 vessels holding a ‘right to fish’. Once the countries know which boats are legal, it should be easier to spot those that are out of place. 

This was published in the January 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.

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