Fishing trawlers at Brixham. Photo by Steve Daniels

What Ports Can Tell Us

Ports provide an important source of information to help us combat Illegal fishing and understand the science and economics of global fisheries. “They serve as the interface between land and sea for fishing vessels,” says Wessley Merten, our data and fisheries analyst at Oceana. “Wherever there’s a port, there’s an interaction. Whether it be offloading catch, exchanging crew, or fueling up to go back out to fish, you have officials and agencies who are theoretically greeting captains, crews and observers.”

With so much information flowing into ports, it seems only natural that Global Fishing Watch, with its capacity to process big data, could become an indispensable tool. Our tracking algorithms could potentially allow anyone receiving a vessel to verify catch and voyage data. Port authorities would be able to perform a quick and easy compliance check that tells them how long the boat was at sea, where it fished the most, if it fished in a marine protected area or engaged in transshipment, or had any AIS blackouts during any portion of its voyage. In fact, we’ve already started moving in that direction in partnership with a widely used traceability tool called Trace Register

Wess is working on ways to integrate our data with receiving protocols at ports around the world. He recently went through the internationally recognized list of all the world’s ports, called the World Port Index, and found that about 1,800 of the 3,600 ports around the globe are located in nations that have ratified the Port States Measures Agreement (PSMA).

That’s good news because it means reporting and tracking measures at those ports are either in place now or being established. Designed to combat illegal fish product from entering markets, the PSMA is an international treaty that sets minimum standards for nations to abide by when fishing vessels or carrier vessels come into port.

The new treaty requires fishing vessels to notify a port a minimum of three days before arrival. The vessel must report a variety of information, from how much fish they have on board to the species and where it was caught. The list of items that must be reported is long and includes the amount of bycatch and a declaration that they were not engaged in illegal activity such as transshipping. The advance notice allows people receiving shipments at port to verify the vessel’s activity with observer reports, VMS radio signals sent by the ship in nearshore waters, and, we anticipate, Global Fishing Watch data.

In addition to providing validation, Global Fishing Watch can capitalize on the Port State Measures Agreement by flagging evasive activity that may indicate illegal fishing. “If we’re looking at a boat’s fishing activity and port visits, and low and behold, they never visit a Port State Measure nation, that’s going to be very shady,” says Wess, “because it may mean they are consistently offloading their catch in ports where the minimum standards are not set to ensure adequate compliance of globally accepted domestic and international conservation measures.”

The flow of vessels and seafood products in and out of ports provides a wealth of information about the global fishing industry. Combined with our data on vessel activity out at sea, resource managers, scientists and conservationist will have a better understanding of how much marine life we’re removing from the ocean every year, how much effort is going into fishing, and the economics that underpin the seafood industry.