Chinese Fishing Vessel Fu Yuan Yu (courtesy Sea Shepherd)

Our Analyst Nets Another IUU Bust

We’re in the business of putting the simple truth on the table for others to see. So for us, there’s nothing more rewarding than learning that the information we share has been used to accomplish something important.

In early 2016, observations we posted on the SkyTruth blog initiated a chain of events that exposed a fleet of vessels fishing illegally in the Southern Indian Ocean. After a 5,000 mile ocean chase, one of the vessels landed in the hands of authorities at the Chinese port of Zhuhai. The entire fleet has since been detained and the fleet owner has been suspended and fined nearly one million dollars.

It began when our analyst, Bjorn Bergman, noticed a fleet of six Chinese fishing vessels behaving unusually in a remote area of the Indian Ocean nearly 500 kilometers from any other fishing vessels. Although the vessels identified themselves as fishing, Bjorn was suspicious  because they did not appear on any fishing registries.

On January 5, he reported the unusual activity on the SkyTruth blog and posted a screenshot of the fleet’s location. Over the following days and weeks he kept his eyes on the vessels and updated his posts. Based on the positions broadcast from the fleet’s Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), there were six parent vessels, each with its own AIS beacon and a string of five or six other AIS beacons that appeared to be attached to fishing gear.

Fu Yuan Yu 70 gear 1-24

The track of the Fu Yuan Yu 070 (black dashed line) over three days. Other vessels of the Fu Yuan Yu Fleet also appear to the south each with string of what is assumed to be associated fishing gear extending southeast about 30 km. (Image: ExactEarth)

The fleet claimed to be going after small pelagic fish, which, if true, meant they weren’t catching tuna and therefore did not need licenses. But the information wasn’t adding up. The vessels had chosen to fish in a very remote location, but they were within a larger region of the ocean where commercial operations usually pursue tuna. Their distinct behavior also raised suspicion. At times a parent vessel and its associated gear would spread out in a line over thirty miles and drift. At other times, the vessel and gear would cluster in the same location. Although the placement of the gear resembled longlining, the movement of the vessel as revealed by its tracks did not. It was unclear what type of fishing the vessel was engaged in and whether or not a license would have been required.

Bjorn’s reports caught the eyes of a number of concerned parties, including the ocean watchdog and advocacy organization Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. By January 18, one of Sea Shepherd’s vessels set a course for the reported location of the mysterious activity.

When they arrived, they found a situation even worse than anticipated. The fleet had been setting drift nets, an insidious type of fishing gear that was banned by the United Nations in 1992 for its destructiveness. Laid out over miles of ocean, the nets create an impenetrable wall that indiscriminately snares everything swimming toward it, including many species of tuna, sea turtles, dolphin, seals, sharks and more.

The Sea Shepherd crew intercepted the Chinese fleet, hauling in some of their netting and documenting their activities. The Chinese fleet scattered. Shortly thereafter they went dark, their AIS signals apparently turned off in an attempt to evade detection. Then, a month later, a signal from one member of the fleet, the Fu Yuan Yu 076, reappeared north of the original site and Bjorn posted its location on our blog.

Interestingly, a second signal also appeared to be broadcasting that same name in the Bay of Bengal. By looking through signals from the previous month, Bjorn saw that this second Fu Yuan Yu 076 signal had been broadcasting positions that would have put its track right in the Himalayan Mountains. Recognizing the error as a “flipped latitude,” meaning it broadcast the right numerical coordinates but in the wrong hemisphere, Bjorn was able to correct the errant location. Then the tracks for both Fu Yuan Yu 076 broadcasts lined up nicely.  As it turned out, the parent vessel had been broadcasting the false location while the beacon deployed with the gear had been sending the correct location signal.

With news of the Fu Yuan Yu 076’s new location, the Sea Shepherd’s Steve Irwin was able to reconnect with the rogue vessel and essentially chase it into the southern Chinese port of Zhuhai. Chinese authorities took a bold stance against the illegal activity when, three months later, they imposed significant penalties on the fleet. They called in six Fu Yuan Yu fleet vessels, detained them indefinitely and permanently stripped the licenses from three of the fleet’s Captains. In addition, they levied a $900,000 fine on the fleet’s parent company, Dong Xing Long Ocean Fishing Company, and suspended it from fishing.

“This is a perfect example of the power of transparency and public access to data,” says our Communications Director, David Manthos. “We publish our findings for the whole world to see, and others with the resources to investigate pick up the baton to take action.”