‘Incognito’ fishing vessels deny Africa $11bn in annual revenues

Sunday February 04 2024
Fishermen at Gazi beach in Msambweni

Fishermen at Gazi beach in Msambweni, Kwale County in Kenya. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing costs Africa up to $11.49 billion annually, with over 75 percent of the world’s industrial fishing vessels operating “incognito.”

According to satellite images recorded in the past three years and published in the Nature Journal by researchers from Global Fishing Watch, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Duke University, most vessels don’t broadcast their location and are not detected by monitoring systems. As a result, the world has no clear picture of who fishes what.

In a new study, researchers have used machine learning and satellite imagery to create a global map of large vessel traffic and offshore infrastructure.

By synthesising GPS data with five years of radar and optical imagery, the researchers were able to identify vessels that failed to broadcast their positions. Using machine learning, they then concluded which of those vessels were likely fishing.

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They found that 75 percent of the world’s industrial fishing vessels are not publicly tracked, mostly in Africa and South Asia.


The survey articulates the challenges in managing natural resources in Africa such as protected marine areas, with many of the unmapped vessels said to engage in illegal fishing.

David Kroodsma, director of research and innovation at the NGO Global Fishing Watch and co-lead author of the study, and a team of researchers went through over two million gigabytes of satellite imagery from 2017 to 2021 to spot vessels and offshore infrastructure in coastal waters.

“Although not all boats are obligated by law to transmit their position, the presence of vessels not participating in public monitoring systems, commonly referred to as “dark fleets,” presents obstacles to the conservation and management of natural resources. Studies have found many dark fleets operating within various marine protected areas,” the report says.

The researchers detected 63,300 vessel occurrences between 2017 and 2021, with three-quarters of them not appearing in public monitoring systems.

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In East Africa, Kenya has declared war on illegal fishing by suspending licensing of foreign fishing vessels for not remitting required levies and declaring fish catches.

Last year, President William Ruto said Kenya loses about $97 million a year to foreign boats fishing without permissio.

Bane of foreign vessels

According to the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA), foreign-owned vessels, with China, Seychelles, Italy, Taiwan, and Hong Kong flags are appearing multiple times on the tracking site, some recording more than 50,000 fishing hours within Kenyan waters.

Kenya loses between 11 million and 26 million tonnes of seafood annually due to illegal fishing in its territorial waters. The fishing licensing has always been shrouded in secrecy, with the number of licensed vessels remaining undisclosed.

According to the Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) 2022 report, 392 incidents of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing were monitored in 2021 compared to 379 in 2020 in the Indian Ocean.

In June 2023, Spanish and French vessels found fishing in the exclusive economic zones of Somalia, Mauritius, India and Mozambique without the permission of these countries were blacklisted after the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) discovered they were repeat offenders.

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A situational report by IOTC says: “Fleets such as these cause irreversible damage to our ocean, threatening marine life and the people who depend on it around the world.”

Despite Kenya embracing the plan of action that came from the “Agreement on port state measures to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal,” unreported and unregulated fishing which was adopted in 2009 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao), it has failed to deter illegal fishing losing billions to foreign fishers.

In 2022, The World Trade Organisation (WTO) indicated that IUU fishing was ranked top after piracy as the primary maritime security threat in African waters.

IUU fishing often leads to other crimes, such as drug and weapons smuggling, human trafficking and piracy with WTO works to end harmful fuel subsidies countries pay to finance their distant-water fishing fleets.

The negotiations which have been ongoing for 20 years, China and India have been in the forefront opposing an end to the subsidies.