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Suspicion over vanishing Aussie fishing ship

SHIPS are mysteriously vanishing in our oceans and the reason could be more nefarious than we think, says the world’s largest international ocean conservation group.

Oceana has identified four fishing vessels which, rather than vanishing to the bottom of the Deep Blue, have routinely disappeared from public radar tracking systems at particularly suspicious locations.

Among them is an Australian fishing vessel which disengaged its tracking system near a protected Marine Reserve on 10 separate occasions over one year.

Ships use an Automatic Identification System (AIS) which was initially designed as a safety mechanism for vessels to avoid collisions at sea but it also used by organisations like Global Fishing Watch to track and monitor ships at sea.

Despite the associated safety benefits, the crew may turn off the public tracking system to hide its location, or “go dark”.

“A ship’s crew may turn off its AIS broadcast for a variety of legitimate reasons, but this behaviour may indicate that a vessel is hiding its location and identity to conceal illegal activities like fishing in no-take protected areas or entering another country’s waters without authorisation,” said the report by Oceana.

The group wants to increase transparency at sea, stop illegal fishing and ensure traceability of all seafood.

To achieve that goal, Oceana has highlighted what it sees as a problem with the ability of ships to hide their location from the public, highlighting the example of Australian vessel, the Corinthian Bay, which repeatedly turned off its AIS near the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve.

“During the period from July 2015 through September 2016, the vessel appeared to turn off its AIS before entering the protected area, and appeared to immediately turn it back on after exiting on 10 separate occasions,” the report said.

The advocacy group is concerned about a nearby portion of the sub-Antarctic waters where a no-take marine reserve was created in 2002, prohibiting all fishing activities unless for scientific research or management purposes.

The ship in question is a commercial fishing vessel registered in Australia and owned by Austral Fisheries, one of Australia’s largest integrated commercial fishing companies. Company CEO David Carter expressed dismay at the report’s authors and said there were perfectly reasonable explanations as to why ships turn off their AIS.

“We generally keep AIS operating when in transit but once we’re fishing, its standard practice to turn it off,” he told news.com.au.

The crew switch off the AIS because “there are other commercial fisherman down there and exposing our location would compromise our commercial catch,” he said.

Any time the Corinthian Bay ship sets out, two independent observers are on board who ensure the ship complies with all safety and environmental requirements, Mr Carter pointed out.

And while it can switch off the publicly available AIS information, the ship is still being tracked by a satellite vessel monitoring system which government regulators can monitor.

“Any suggestion of wrong doing is hugely inappropriate and deeply offensive,” Mr Carter said.

“This fishery is the most highly regulated on the planet, so much as a 2B pencil goes overboard and no fewer than 17 government departments are notified,” he said, half jokingly.

The Oceana report also identified two Spanish ships which went dark while approaching or operating in the national waters of a number of west African countries. It is possible the threat of piracy in the region played a role in this behaviour.

The report also highlighted a Panamanian commercial fishing vessel which seemed to disappear on the west side of the Galápagos Marine Reserve to reappear after 15 days on the east side of the reserve.

The Galápagos Marine Reserve is the same protected marine area where an illegal Chinese fishing vessel was caught last year with a cargo of Hammerheads, threatened Silky Sharks and a number of young and baby sharks.

In that case, 20 Chinese fisherman were sentenced to between three and four years jail in Ecuador and fined $7.5 million.

“Illegal fishing is a global problem that’s threatening the sustainability of our world’s fisheries,” said Lacey Malarky, co-author of the Oceana report.

While Oceana is not accusing any of the ships mentioned in its report of engaging in illegal activity, it wants to see more stringent obligations placed on fishing vessels to publicly reveal their location to mitigate against the threat of illegal fishing.

“We need to be asking the obvious question: ‘Why would any vessel want to hide its tracks?’” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director for illegal fishing and seafood fraud at Oceana. “Going dark from public tracking systems raises legitimate questions about a fishing vessel’s activities at sea. Increased transparency can help deter illegal fishing, prevent unauthorised fishing in a nation’s waters and improve monitoring of fishing around the world.”

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