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EU tuna fleet fishes on the dark side

September 11, 2020 by Jess Rattle

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Blue Marine Foundation has today published a new paper highlighting the misuse of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) – the tracking system, mandatory for all large EU fishing vessels, that transmits a ship’s position – by Spanish and French-flagged tuna purse seine vessels operating in the Indian Ocean.  The paper, which analyses the AIS usage by 14 Spanish-flagged and 11 French-flagged vessels over a period of more than two years, found that the French and Spanish fleets failed to transmit AIS for 68 per cent and 80 per cent of the analysis days, respectively.

EU law requires fishing vessels above 15 metres to be fitted with AIS which must be maintained at all times and may only be switched off in “exceptional circumstances” where the master considers this necessary in the interest of the safety or security of his vessel (imminent danger).  Despite this, one Spanish-flagged vessel failed to transmit AIS for a continuous period of 519 days, with 13 other vessels also “going dark” for more than 100 days at a time.  Of the 25 vessels analysed, 20 of them spent more than half of their time at sea with AIS switched off.

In November 2019, BLUE submitted the AIS study, conducted by OceanMind, to the European Commission, highlighting the concerning lack of compliance.  Despite assurances from the European Commission that it would “follow this up as a matter of urgency with the relevant Member States, given the safety and surveillance implications”, Blue Marine Foundation has not received any explanation of the Spanish and French-flagged vessels’ non-compliance, despite numerous requests over more than nine months.

BLUE also requested to be sent the corresponding Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) data, to allow for cross-checking to be undertaken to establish where the vessels went after turning their AIS off and to understand what they may have been doing during this time.  This request has not been not granted.

Possible explanations that have been offered by informed sources for tuna fleets “going dark” are that vessels could be landing undeclared tuna in African ports that is shipped off out of the region, for example to South and Central America.  While “going dark” can be associated with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing as well as illegal transhipment of fish and bycatch, it can also be undertaken by vessels operating within high risk areas for piracy who turn off their AIS to avoid being detected by other boats.  However, it is clear that the vessels’ lack of compliance cannot be explained by the threat of piracy in the north-west Indian Ocean, as a significant proportion of the non-transmission was observed outside of the high risk area.

Executive Director of Blue Marine Foundation, Charles Clover, said: “After almost ten months of asking, we have still not received an adequate response from the European Commission explaining the fleets’ shocking lack of compliance with the EU’s own regulations.  Having the majority of the EU’s Indian Ocean purse seine fleet turn off its AIS for more than half of its time at sea raises suspicion and forces one to wonder what these vessels are trying to hide by going dark for such prolonged periods of time.  We encourage the EU and its member states to make available the vessels’ VMS data by way of explanation and as an important gesture of transparency, given the huge quantities of already-overfished yellowfin tuna being caught and transported by these industrial purse seiners.”

In November, BLUE showed that Spain exceeded its lawful quota for yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean by 30 per cent in 2018, catching over 13,000 tonnes more of the “near threatened” fish than it was entitled to.  No adequate explanation has been provided by the EU for this overcatch as yet, and BLUE plans to pursue this matter at the next meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) Compliance Committee in October.

The paper and AIS study can be read in full here.

Cover image taken from Global Fishing Watch.

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