In September last year, the Greenpeace campaign ship Arctic Sunrise was scanning the mid-Atlantic ocean, thousands of kilometres from anywhere. On board, investigators were looking for vessels that were doing their best not to be found.
One of them was Taiwanese fishing boat, the Hung Hwa – a longliner capable of running baited lines more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) in length, targeting mainly tuna species. It had turned off its satellite locator, the Automatic Identification System (AIS).
It had “gone dark”.
A fishing vessel might do that to avoid competition from other boats or to prevent attack by pirates. But often it coincides with a transhipment at sea – the offloading of a fishing boat’s catch onto what is known as a reefer, or a giant refrigerated cargo ship.
The transhipment loophole
Transhipping is the lifeblood of the distant water fishing industry. It allows fishing boats to stay at sea without returning to port for months because they can offload their catch on to what are effectively colossal floating freezers.
As part of the process, the fishing vessels are refuelled and resupplied by the reefers, allowing them to get straight back to doing what they do – catching fish relentlessly.
The problem is that transhipping fish mid-ocean presents a major loophole in monitoring fishing activities.
By offloading at sea, vessels are able to smuggle illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) catches into the market by mixing them with legal catches.
This makes it exceedingly difficult to detect fraud or trace a shipment back to the vessel that caught it. It also allows entire fleets to operate out of sight, where they can hide illegal catches and operate without returning to port.
Under the radar
On the bridge of the Arctic Sunrise, the Greenpeace investigators were scrutinising the navigation screens, following the satellite tracks of vessels in their sector of the ocean. Their suspicions were raised when a Taiwan-owned, Panama-registered reefer vessel called the Hsiang Hao, appeared to be sailing slowly in a loitering pattern – effectively circling for several hours.
There was no other vessel present, at least none displaying AIS.
But the next day the Arctic Sunrise intercepted the Hsiang Hao and there, alongside, was the Hung Hwa, still “dark” – not transmitting its satellite location.
And from the Hung Hwa’s hold, dozens upon dozens of deep-frozen tuna and shark – frosted and steaming in the humid equatorial air – were being hoisted on to the reefer ship.
Greenpeace’s lead investigator, Sophie Cooke, said there are many reasons vessels may not want to appear on satellite.
“Some of them might be legitimate,” she said. “But a lot of the time, it’s because they want to avoid detection or want to go into areas they are not allowed. Or they want to meet up with another vessel at sea and do not want to be seen.”
“If ships turn off their satellite tracking it means no one sees what’s happening out at sea and it makes the high seas a black hole of fishing activity,” Cooke added.