Unusual fleet behavior off West Africa spurs our analyst to investigate
Just because something appears suspicious, doesn’t mean laws are being broken. Jumping too quickly to conclusions could embroil a legally operating fishing fleet in unwarranted investigations or accusations. Equally damaging would be to rush in on a crime without solid evidence and lose the chance to shut down a bad actor. Global Fishing Watch is a powerful tool to be wielded with caution.
That’s why we’re taking our time evaluating a series of intriguing vessel tracks, and we’d like to share the story here, though it’s still unfolding. For a couple of years, a fleet of Chinese fishing vessels and a refrigerated cargo ship have been broadcasting their location off the coast of Mexico while actually fishing off West Africa. The refrigerated cargo ship, called a reefer for short, seems to be meeting up frequently with the fishing vessels. That could be a problem because rendezvous between fishers and reefers usually mean transshipment, a practice commonly used to mix illegally caught fish with legitimate catch.
Illegal fishing is a significant problem off the coast of West Africa where one-third of all seafood caught is illegally harvested by Chinese vessels. Guinean waters, where this fleet is operating, have been particularly hard hit.
Vessels do meet with other ships for reasons besides transshipping, resupply for instance. And its possible faulty AIS systems could be causing the false locations. So we’ve been working with authorities to clarify what’s going on. Here’s the story as it has unfolded so far.
About a year ago (October 2016), SkyTruth analyst and fisheries expert Bjorn Bergman noticed the unusual fleet appearing about 500 miles off the west coast of Mexico. These Chinese flagged fishing vessels were not registered with any of the RFMOs (Regional Fishery Management Organizations) in the Pacific. After taking a closer look, he saw that some of their AIS positions were being picked up by a terrestrial receiver. Terrestrial receivers only pick up positions 10-20 miles away, so clearly these positions, hundreds of miles offshore, were impossible.
To find the real location of this fleet Bjorn began analyzing the full AIS tracks of the vessels from the time they left the coast of China in 2014. He saw a distinct pattern in their tracks. When the vessels crossed south of the Equator the position indicated in their AIS broadcasts instantly jumped 41.6962° in latitude further south. When they crossed the Prime Meridian into the Western Hemisphere their positions instantly jumped 85.3925° in longitude further west. Once the fleet crossed north of the Equator the latitude offset disappeared but the longitude offset remained.
It became clear to Bjorn that adding 85.3925 degrees to the longitude these vessels were broadcasting revealed their true location. The corrected track indicated that the vessels were fishing within the EEZs of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.
All the vessels broadcasting false locations identified themselves as part of the Chinese flagged Fu Yuan Yu fleet. (Interestingly, Bjorn had previously identified other Fu Yuan Yu vessels that turned out to be using illegal drift nets in the Indian Ocean.) In addition to the false locations, Bjorn has noticed an array of puzzling behaviors from this fleet including switching between MMSI numbers and scrambling their identities.
In July (2016), he contacted the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a London-based NGO that has been working with West African countries to combat illegal fishing. Together, they confirmed that at least six fishing vessels and the reefer Fu Yuan Yu F88 were consistently broadcasting these false offset locations. An additional six fishing vessels from the same fleet were broadcasting correct locations within Guinea’s EEZ.
Bjorn’s analysis of the reefer’s position was confirmed serendipitously by a photo of the vessel in the Guinean port of Conakry taken on June 30, 2016 and posted on Shipspotting.com. In the photo, the reefer is collecting fish from the fishing vessel Fu Yuan Yu 372, but it is doing so in port where transshipment is legal.
A closer look at the reefer’s corrected AIS position, however, revealed that in March, its track had intersected with those of other Fu Yuan Yu fishing vessels while away from port where transhipping is illegal.
Bjorn and EJF confirmed a series of vessel rendezvous at sea beginning as early as 2014 and continuing through late May 2016. In August 2016, EJF and SkyTruth issued a joint alert statement to the Guinean Government notifying them of these potential transshipments.
It turns out that at least some of the Fu Yuan Yu vessels are licensed to fish in Guinea’s EEZ, including those broadcasting false positions. However, if they have been engaging in transhipment at sea, they have been acting illegally. We continue to be in communication with EJF and Guinean officials, and an investigation into potential transhipment is ongoing. We will be following the progress and updating you as we learn more.
The reefer Fu Yuan Yu F88 does not identify itself as fishing, so it doesn’t appear on the public Global Fishing Watch map. But you can click on the vessel names below to follow two of the fishing vessels.
The Fu Yuan Yu 381 is reporting its location off of Guinea, while the Fu Yuan Yu 359, is broadcasting a position off the coast of Mexico. Authorities in Guinea have confirmed that both vessels have been fishing in their waters, and both are licensed. If however, our analysis has revealed transhipments outside of port, then we have shined a light on illegal activity, and it is up to the Guinean authorities to take action.