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IN FOCUS: the Story of Transshipment Transparency is critical to ensuring seafood is legal and verifiable

Every day around the globe, hundreds of refrigerated cargo vessels - commonly referred to as “reefers” - traverse the open ocean to take in catch from fishing vessels and bring it back to port for processing. This activity, known as transshipment, is an essential part of the global commercial fishing industry, allowing fishers to offload their catch at sea and avoid long and costly trips back to port.

But transshipment poses a significant problem as it often takes place outside the view and reach of authorities. At-sea transshipment is riddled with missing or fraudulent reporting, which skews stock assessments and undermines fisheries conservation and management measures. Gaps in monitoring and regulatory control create opportunities for the occurrence of illicit activities like the laundering of millions of dollars in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, as well as the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and even people.

To many, transshipment on the open ocean remains a mystery.

To help improve the understanding and management of transshipment at sea, Global Fishing Watch, with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, has launched a new public monitoring portal to provide greater transparency, monitoring, and analysis of transshipment activity. Through machine learning and satellite data, Global Fishing Watch seeks to study global transshipment patterns and shine a light on what has historically been an opaque practice.

I spent the last year helping develop Global Fishing Watch’s carrier vessel portal, but most of that time was spent crunching numbers and digging through vessel records. Little did I know of the people, and their stories, who were behind this vital part of the fishing industry. While many of us will never know exactly what takes place when at-sea transshipment occurs, images acquired through fisheries observer programs help paint a picture of this integral, and also dangerous, activity. Here’s what I found. No illegal activity is depicted in the following images.

Southwest Indian Ocean

Every day thousands of fishing vessels take to the sea. They head to fishing grounds far away from shore, ready to be filled with seafood - tuna, squid, mackerel, the list goes on. When a vessel is full and not able to hold any more fish, it either needs to transit back to port where catch can be unloaded, or it can meet up with a carrier vessel to transfer the catch. This is called transshipment.

Image credit: Juan Vilata

Western Indian Ocean

Transshipment can take place at sea or in port. At-sea transshipment occurs when a refrigerated cargo vessel, or “reefer”, takes in catch from one of the thousands of fishing vessels roaming the open seas, out of sight and reach of authorities.

Image credit: Juan Vilata

Federated States of Micronesia

Transshipment can also happen in port when vessels are docked or anchored in specific locations within a country’s port areas. While at-seat transshipment presents the most significant concerns when it comes to monitoring and reporting, in port transshipment can also lack sufficient oversight and inspection capacity.

Image credit: Francisco Blaha

Indian Ocean

The crew of an Asian longliner sort the last batches of frozen fish -- billfish, oilfish, and escolar fish -- before they are transshipped onto a carrier vessel.

Target species, or species that fishers intend to catch, often include tuna for the sashimi market. But bycatch, or incidental catch, cannot be avoided in pelagic longlines. When tuna is scarce, other marketable species are often retained after being caught.

Image credit: Juan Vilata

Indian Ocean

An Asian longliner moored alongside a carrier vessel, ready to transship a batch of frozen tuna and tuna-like species.

While tuna makes up a significant portion of what is commonly transshipped, shark, and billfish also represent a large portion

Image credit: Juan Vilata

Indian Ocean

A crew member of an Asian longliner prepares batches of frozen fish to be transshipped onto a refrigerated cargo vessel and then sent to shore for processing.

Image credit: Juan Vilata

Indian Ocean

A crew member watches on as a mixed batch of frozen fish is transshipped from a tuna longliner onto a carrier vessel.

Image credit: Juan Vilata

Indian Ocean

Preparing fish for transshipment requires careful calculation. Heavy frozen fish trunks are perfectly balanced in nets as they are hoisted from one vessel to the other. A crew member attentively directs the crane to unload each batch into the carrier vessel holds.

Image credit: Juan Vilata

Marshall Islands

Crew members from a purse seiner sort batches of fish from a fishing vessel hatch in the waters near Majuro. Temperatures inside a purse seiner hold can reach minus 15 degrees Celsuis, and in longliners as low as minus 60 degrees, making for challenging conditions for an already-exhausted crew.

Image credit: Francisco Blaha

Papua New Guinea

Transshipment monitoring is crucial for healthy fisheries and for ensuring that illegal activities are detected—or deterred before they can happen. Reporting, monitoring, and data sharing must all be properly implemented to ensure that catch is both legal and verifiable.

Image credit: Francisco Blaha

Indian Ocean

There is no such thing as “close-of-business” when it comes to transshipment. Operations take place at any time - day or night - as soon as the fishing vessel meets the carrier vessel. Vessels can drift slowly together for many hours while transshipment takes place, or they can be made quickly and covertly on the high seas.

Image credit: Juan Vilata

Indian Ocean

A moment of respite for one exhausted crew member after several tons of fish are transshipped to a carrier vessel. Oftentimes food and supplies are transferred in the opposite direction - from the cargo ship over to the fishing vessel. This makes for an especially long day. Operations are sped up to minimize time invested, which can bring further risks to tired and overworked crew members.

Image credit: Juan Vilata

Philippines

A worker unloads yellowfin tuna at a market in General Santos, Philippines. The value of sashimi-grade tuna such as bluefin, bigeye, and yellowfin is directly linked to the freshness of catch.

Transshipment helps ensure that fish products get to market both quickly and efficiently.

Image credit: Francisco Blaha

With the carrier vessel portal, Global Fishing Watch hopes to increase transparency of the fishing industry and ensure that transshipped catch is both legal and verifiable. While more data is needed to fully reveal the global patterns of transshipment, our work highlights the transnational challenge of transshipment at sea and makes clear that effectively addressing the accompanying sustainability and human rights challenges of slavery, trafficking, and bonded labor will require a global perspective and international cooperation.

Hannah Linder is a fisheries analyst for Global Fishing Watch.

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