Africa Defense Forum
ADF is a professional military magazine published quarterly by U.S. Africa Command to provide an international forum for African security professionals. ADF covers topics such as counter terrorism strategies, security and defense operations, transnational crime, and all other issues affecting peace, stability, and good governance on the African continent.

New Study Tracks Foreign Ownership of Fishing Vessels


To help authorities detect illegal fishing, a new study combined the identities of 35,000 vessels with a decade of GPS data to offer a worldwide assessment of fishing compliance, fishing by foreign-owned trawlers and reflagging patterns.

Published in Science Advances, the study found that West Africa, the world’s epicenter of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, was among the regions where reflagging occurs most often. Reflagging is when a vessel changes its flags from one country to another, often to avoid penalties and regulations.


Researchers from Global Fishing Watch (GFW), Duke University and the Stockholm Resilience Center conducted the study. The lead author, Jaeyoon Park, a senior data scientist at GFW, said that he hopes the findings will help authorities, researchers and conservation experts improve fisheries management and law enforcement.

“This study and our data is one step forward,” Park told Mongabay. “As more vessel information becomes available in the public domain, the easier it will be to demonstrate which vessels are compliant and which are rogue operators.”

Researchers plan to incorporate more data into GFW’s interactive map of vessel activity and regularly update it to give authorities fresh information.

Most illegal fishing vessels in West Africa are Chinese. China commands the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet and is the world’s worst IUU fishing offender, according to the IUU Fishing Index.

Analysts say 40% to 60% of the fish caught in West African waters are caught illegally. According to a new report by the Financial Transparency Coalition, the region loses anywhere from $2.3 billion to $9.4 billion annually to illegal fishing.

China also is increasingly targeting southeastern African waters. In the exclusive economic zones of K

enya and the Seychelles, tuna trawlers are commonly flagged to the Seychelles but owned by Chinese nationals, the study showed.

Dyhia Belhabib, a principal investigator at Ecotrust Canada and director at Nautical Crime Investigation Services, was surprised by the study’s finding that reflagging is often done by foreign-owned vessels at ports instead of at sea.

“To me, reflagging at port may be an indication that it may not be a diversion strategy but rather the use of a loophole to obtain some strategic (administrative or economic) benefits,” Belhabib told Mongabay. “Flag changes after AIS [automatic identification system] gaps are also common in this space.”

IUU fishing operators on the continent also commonly use shell companies and joint venture agreements that make it difficult to investigate and prosecute ships accused of illegal fishing.

Shell companies are created to hold funds and manage another company’s or individual’s financial transactions. They look like real companies but exist only on paper. A joint venture agreement is an arrangement between two or more companies to start a new company for their mutual benefit.

The study’s authors recommend that flag states identify “a genuine link” between a trawler’s beneficial owner — who profits from fishing — and the vessel’s flag.

“Recent research also shows that combining authorities’ proprietary data with AIS is beneficial to a country’s effort to monitor vessels flying flags of convenience,” the authors wrote. Flags of convenience allow a vessel’s owner to use open vessel registries to fish in the open sea where coastal nations do not have jurisdiction.

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