WASHINGTON — Oceana released a new analysis today finding that the United States’ requirements for transparency of fishing vessels fall short of other countries’ requirements, including the European Union. Oceana says this analysis reinforces the need for the U.S. government to expand regulations and require more fishing vessels to use public tracking devices.  

Public vessel tracking is enabled by automatic identification system (AIS), which was originally developed to increase maritime safety, reduce vessel collisions, and enhance awareness of vessel locations at sea, but it has also become an invaluable tool for monitoring fishing vessel activity at sea. These devices broadcast a vessel’s location, speed, direction, and other identifying information, providing key details that, when analyzed, can demonstrate when a vessel is fishing and infer what type of fishing it is engaged in. AIS is an inexpensive, easy-to-implement technology, and Oceana says it should be required on more U.S. fishing vessels and the United States should require similar transparency of seafood imports. Expanding transparency will help bring to light suspicious behaviors, protect our ocean habitats and wildlife, and discourage illicit activity like illegal fishing and human rights abuses. 

Oceana’s analysis found that only 12% of the more than 19,000 commercial fishing vessels registered in the U.S. fleet are required to carry AIS devices. The United States requires fishing vessels 65 feet or longer to carry AIS devices and transmit signals within 12 nautical miles from the coast. In contrast, the European Union requires all fishing vessels over 49 feet (15 meters) to continually broadcast their AIS signals for their entire trip. While the length requirement differs by only 16 feet, expanding the requirement in the United States would increase AIS usage by 65%, covering more than 1,500 additional fishing vessels. The European Union, the United Kingdom, Liberia, and smaller fishing nations like Mauritius also require smaller fishing vessels — compared to U.S. requirements — to carry and transmit AIS devices. Indonesia requires all vessels, both domestic and foreign flagged, to use AIS devices in Indonesian waters.

“If we’re serious about stopping illegally caught seafood from entering the United States, we need to know more about the seafood we import, and to do that, we need to expand transparency of fishing. The United States must embrace transparency at home so we can demand it elsewhere,” said Beth Lowell, Oceana’s deputy vice president for the United States. “Expanding domestic rules will allow the United States to make vessel transparency a requirement for seafood imports and enhance our tools to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.” 

Because up to 85% of the fish we consume in the U.S. is imported, Oceana says expanding these domestic requirements is necessary to hold imported seafood to higher standards. When vessels are required to transmit tracking data, the public and fisheries managers can keep a better eye on what is happening at sea. This allows officials to more effectively focus their enforcement and inspection actions on higher-risk vessels like those that disable their tracking systems or appear to be fishing in closed areas. According to a reportby the International Trade Commission, the United States imported an estimated $2.4 billion worth of seafood derived from illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in 2019 alone. Requiring fishing vessels to continuously broadcast AIS would result in more transparency in vessel behavior and could be used to validate information reported on the origin of the catch.    

While AIS was originally developed to avoid collisions, it has also become an invaluable tool for monitoring fishing vessel activity at sea. Oceana says AIS should be required on more fishing vessels to help shine a light on suspicious behaviors at sea, protect marine wildlife, and deter illegal fishing. Catch documentation, seafood traceability, and transparency are critical to ensure that only safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled seafood is making its way into the U.S. domestic market.  

Read the report here.