Luke Duggleby for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Fisheries Reform: Transshipment in the Western and Central Pacific

Greater understanding and transparency of carrier vessel fleet dynamics would help reform management


The transshipment of catch, which allows fresh fish to get to market sooner, is a vital but largely hidden part of the global commercial fishing industry. Transshipment involves hundreds of refrigerated cargo vessels, or carrier vessels, roaming the oceans, taking in catch from thousands of fishing vessels and transporting it to shore for processing. While transshipment touches a wide range of seafood products, most is made up of bigeye, yellowfin, and skipjack tuna. Salmon, mackerel, and crab also account for a substantial portion of transshipped products.

Moving catch from one vessel to another may seem innocuous, but most transshipments take place far out at sea—where, out of the sight and reach of authorities, unscrupulous fishing vessel operators can obscure, manipulate, or otherwise falsify data on their fishing practices, the species or amounts caught or transferred, and catch locations. Based on extensive data from regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), such activity appears to be widespread the world over, reflecting a lack of monitoring and control because the tracking of these transfers—and the degree to which they are conducted in line with regulatory requirements—is often inadequate. Even when transshipment occurs in port, proper oversight cannot always be guaranteed because some ports lack sufficient monitoring capacity, inspection procedures or protocols.

At stake are efforts to improve the health of diminishing fish stocks—and the economies of countries that are heavily dependent on fishing.1 In the western and central Pacific Ocean, over US$142 million worth of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) product is transshipped each year, a 2016 study estimated, most of it misreported or not reported by licensed fishing vessels.2 These activities don’t just harm the livelihoods of those who fish legally. They also undermine fisheries conservation and management efforts, contribute to global overfishing, and, according to multiple credible reports, have even been linked to trafficking in people, drugs, and weapons.3

The relative lack of transparency surrounding the movement of carrier vessels and their activities has meant that transshipment operations remain poorly monitored at both the regional and global levels. To better understand transshipment operations, The Pew Charitable Trusts combined commercially available satellite automatic identification system (AIS) data with the application of machine learning technology to analyse the movements of carrier vessels operating in the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) Convention area in 2016.

Incomplete use of AIS by WCPFC-authorized carrier vessels limited Pew’s ability to comprehensively examine and draw conclusions about carrier vessel fleet dynamics. But analysing AIS data provided an opportunity to better understand overall WCPFC carrier vessel fleet movement patterns—including spatial dynamics, voyage profiles and the most frequented ports. That data showed that at least 140 carrier vessels operated in WCPFC Convention area waters in 2016, but only 25 vessels reported high seas transshipments.4 Per the combined analysis of AIS data and publicly available reports to WCPFC, a strong probability exists that more at-sea transshipment events occurred that year than were reported by carrier vessels themselves or by relevant flag or coastal State authorities. Similarly, unauthorized carrier vessels probably carried out transshipment activities in WCPFC-managed waters that included, in part, transferring WCPFC-managed species.

Pew cross-referenced the AIS track histories of carrier vessels and movement patterns consistent with transshipment behaviour against publicly available information on carrier vessels and transshipments reported by the WCPFC secretariat and Commission members. The analysis produced a baseline profile of the behaviour and trends of authorized carrier vessels in the Pacific. Pew found that transshipment management in WCPFCmanaged waters is compromised by a lack of reporting information, non-compliance with reporting requirements, and non-standardized reporting responses. As such, the regulatory framework requires significant strengthening, standardization, and harmonization, regardless of whether current reporting requirements are being met.

Pew recommends that three parts of the transshipment regulatory framework be strengthened:reporting, monitoring and data sharing.

Transshipment reporting would be much more complete and uniform by:

  • Requiring that all events be reported, regardless of location or origin of catch.
  • Updating and standardizing all reporting and notification forms and including minimum data collection requirements for both target and by-catch species.
  • Mandating notifications of intent to transship when carrier vessels enter WCPFC waters, including confirmation of compliance with near-real-time vessel monitoring system (VMS) reporting and observer carriage requirements.
  • Requiring electronic notifications and declarations within the 24 hours before and after each event, regardless of location.
  • Mandating the presence of observers on all vessels involved in transshipping and requiring submission of observer reports after each event as an independent means of verification.
  • Requiring that the secretariat conduct annual audits of transshipment reporting and carrier vessel activities, using both public and non-public domain data.Transshipment monitoring would be much more effective by:
  • Requiring 100 per cent observer coverage (human and/or electronic) on all vessels involved in transshipment, regardless of location.
  • Establishing minimum standards for collecting carrier observer information.
  • Ensuring that all vessels engaged in transshipment have access to a pool of trained and certified carrier observers who collect information for both scientific and compliance purposes.
  • Requiring that all vessels engaged in transshipment have an operational VMS unit on board to help authorities monitor and track vessels port to port in near-real time.
  • Mandating manual reporting and vessel monitoring arrangements if VMS units malfunction or fail.
  • Considering requiring AIS usage by all WCPFC-authorized vessels as a supplement to VMS to make activities more transparent and improve overall vessel monitoring.Transshipment data sharing would be much more effective by:
  • Establishing and harmonizing transshipment data-sharing procedures among all relevant national authorities and the secretariat.
  • Expanding the data-sharing agreement between the WCPFC and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) to include sharing of all transshipment-related data and involving the IATTC’s carrier observer service provider.
  • Establishing a data-sharing agreement with the North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC) to include sharing all transshipment-related data.

Greater oversight and transparency of transshipment operations would support the growing efforts by responsible governments and seafood suppliers to better track their supply chains. Improved transparency would also help RFMOs detect and deter illegal activities.

While this report aims to give WCPFC fishery managers information to help them implement the Commission’s December 2018 decision to review its transshipment management measures this year,5 other global RFMOs could also consider the recommendations and best-practice guidelines.

The complex world of transshipment in the WCPFC Convention area

RFMOs are administrative bodies made up of governments that share interests in managing and conserving fish stocks in a region. These include coastal States, whose waters are home to the managed stocks, and “distant water fishing nations,” whose fishing fleets travel to areas where those stocks are found. At least 13 RFMOs actively manage fish stocks on the high seas, and some of their areas overlap. Of these, five (including the WCPFC) are tuna RFMOs, which manage fisheries for tuna and other large, tuna-like species such as swordfish and marlin. Together, these five manage fisheries in about 90 per cent of the Earth’s oceans.6

The WCPFC is the largest tuna RFMO, covering about 20 per cent of the planet’s surface. It comprises 26 member governments, seven cooperating non-members and seven participating territories (collectively referred to as CCMs). Decisions are binding on the CCMs and require unanimous consent. Article 1(e) of the WCPFC Convention7 defines fishing vessels as “any vessel used or intended for use for the purpose of fishing … including carrier vessels.” Therefore, carrier vessels operating outside the jurisdiction of the nation whose flag they fly in the WCPFC Convention area must be authorized and listed on the WCPFC Record of Fishing Vessels (RFV).

The WCPFC defines transshipment as “the unloading of all or any of the fish on board a fishing vessel to another fishing vessel either at sea or in port.” Notably, the Commission asked CCMs to encourage their vessels to transship in port. It then developed procedures for CCMs to obtain and verify data on the quantity and species transshipped both in port and at sea in the Convention area, and procedures to determine when transshipment covered by this Convention has been completed.

As shown in Figure 1, WCPFC’s Convention area overlaps with two other RFMOs in the Pacific: the IATTC and the NPFC. The WCPFC Convention area also includes the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of many of its members, including 15 Pacific island countries, New Zealand, part of Australia and eight non-contiguous EEZs of the United States. The area’s western and northern sides have no defined borders.

Transshipment in the Western and Central Pacific

In 2009, the Commission adopted Conservation and Management Measure (CMM) 2009-06 - Regulation on Transshipment.8 This measure is broken into three sections, with transshipment management measures divided based on fishing location (e.g., high seas, EEZ, port) and vessel type:

  • Section 1 provides the general rules governing management of transshipment. Although the CMM states that the rules apply to all transshipments of highly migratory species caught in the Convention area, it excludes catch taken and transshipped within archipelagic waters or territorial seas. Likewise, rules governing transshipment in port or in waters under national jurisdiction (EEZs) are left subject to the national laws of the relevant port or coastal State CCM.
  • Section 2 covers transshipment by purse seiners, prohibiting transshipment on the high seas of the Convention area. Although the Commission generally prohibits at-sea transshipment by purse seiners,the CMM provides for exemptions. Three purse seine fleets—flagged by Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and New Zealand—have this exemption.
  • Section 3 applies to all other vessel types, such as longline, troll and pole-and-line vessels. While transshipment by these vessels is also prohibited on the high seas, CCMs can advise the Commissionthat it is “impracticable for certain vessels that it is responsible for to operate without being able to transship on the high seas.”9

CCMs have taken advantage of this allowance, and high seas transshipments, primarily by longliners, have become the norm rather than the exception.

Regarding high seas transshipment reporting, the measure stipulates that CCMs are responsible for reporting on both offloading and receiving vessels and must notify the secretariat at least 36 hours before each transshipment. In addition, once the transshipment takes place, CCMs must give the secretariat a Transshipment Declaration within 15 days.

As allowed by the measure, most CCMs have delegated this reporting responsibility to the vessel masters or operators. The offloading and receiving vessels must complete a declaration for each transshipment and transshipment of catch taken in the Convention area. Masters and operators must report such activity to the secretariat when it happens on the high seas.

For transshipments that occur within EEZs and in port, the vessels involved must follow coastal State reporting requirements. The relevant coastal, flag and/or port State CCM is responsible for reporting these events to the secretariat as part of its Annual Report Part 1 reporting obligations. The measure requires that observers be deployed on carrier vessels for all transshipments at sea. But it does not require these observers to submit a report or otherwise independently verify the amount and type of fish being transshipped on the high seas. These reports are ostensibly provided to the carrier vessel’s flag State authorities, but it is unknown how they are used.

Carrier vessel activity in the WCPFC Convention area in 2016

In 2016, authorized carrier vessels observed on AIS operating in the WCPFC Convention area demonstrated four distinct voyage profiles that Pew categorized based on their movements at sea and the port visits they made in Asia and the Pacific. Figures 2a through 2d highlight carrier vessels whose voyages were typical of each profile.

  • Complex carrier voyage (Figure 2a) shows a transit into the WCPFC Convention area, a combinationof movements on the high seas within EEZs and port visits, followed by a transit back to an Asian port.
  • EEZ and multiple ports voyage (Figure 2b) highlights a transit into the WCPFC Convention area,a combination of movements within EEZs and port visits, followed by a transit back to an Asian port.
  • Ports-only voyage (Figure 2c) shows a transit into the WCPFC Convention area to specific Pacific portsand then a transit back to an Asian port.
  • IATTC and WCPFC voyage (Figure 2d) highlights a combination of vessel movements in WCPFC andIATTC Convention areas in a single voyage.

See full Pew Trust article . . .