Global Fishing Watch Provides Training to Peru’s Vessel Surveillance Group

[Originally posted on the Global Fishing Watch blog, Aug. 15, 2018.]

We were very pleased to complete a three day training session this month in Lima with the Peruvian Ministry of Production’s vessel surveillance division. It was an opportunity for us to share the latest developments on the Global Fishing Watch mapping platform and to get expert feedback from professionals in Peru’s fisheries sector.

Since Peru’s public commitment in 2017 to show fishing activity from their Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) tracking data on our map we have engaged with local researchers and regulators to review and improve our data and analysis in the region. This began with a workshop with Peru’s Instituto del Mar de Peru (IMARPE) last December and now continues with Peruvian regulators directly responsible for daily monitoring of one of the world’s largest fisheries (Peruvian anchoveta).

In our most recent training session we highlighted the benefits of being able to view and compare multiple data sources on the Global Fishing Watch map including the new night lights and encounters layers launched in June this year. Many large fishing vessels on the Peruvian coast are covered both by AIS and the Peruvian VMS system. In training, we compared the tracking data from both systems for the same vessel showing how one system may cover a gap in the other.

The new night lights layer also has the potential to be very useful to regulators in combination with tracking data. A fleet of hundreds of Chinese vessels fishing for squid is expected to soon return to the Peruvian EEZ boundary. Individual fishing locations can be seen precisely due to the powerful lights they use to attract squid to the surface. However, to identify the fishing vessels, the night light information has to be combined with tracking and identity information from AIS. In training we identified a number of vessels in the Chinese squid fleet and followed their AIS tracks into port in Peru or to rendezvous with reefers (refrigerated cargo ships) where their catch is likely being transshipped.

As we work to develop new tools and data sources for the Global Fishing Watch map it’s valuable to get the insights of fisheries regulators on how they would like to be able to apply our map. So it was great to be able to wrap up the training with a discussion on features that it would be useful to enable in the future. These included being able to select an area on the map with the mouse and display a list of vessels inside and downloading reports of past activity for individual vessels as they come into port.

A special thanks to José Luis Herrera and Nilton Yarmas for coordinating the training. We also benefited greatly from the assistance of Eloy Aroni Sulca of Oceana’s Lima office who demonstrated many interesting potential applications of Global Fishing Watch in Peru. We look forward to hearing more in the future from participants in our training course and collaborating with them for successful monitoring and management of Peru’s ocean resources.

Illegal transshipment of fish between Saly Reefer and Flipper 4 fishing vessel. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.)

Machine learning and satellite data provide the first global view of transshipment activity

[This post originally appeared on the Global Fishing Watch blog.]
Illegal transshipment of fish between Saly Reefer and Flipper 4 fishing vessel. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.)

Illegal transshipment of fish between Saly Reefer and Flipper 4 fishing vessel. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.)

This week marks the publication of the first-ever global assessment of transshipment in a scientific journal. Researchers at Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth, in the journal Frontiers of Marine Science, published “Identifying Global Patterns of Transshipment Behavior.”

What is transshipment? Why does it matter? What have we learned and what remains unknown? Read on to find out.

Vessels may meet at sea for a number of reasons, such as to refuel, to exchange crew, or to deliver supplies. In the commercial fishing industry, vessels also meet to transfer catch in a process known as transshipment. Huge vessels with refrigerated holds – some large enough to hold over 100 US school buses – collect catch from multiple fishing boats at sea to carry back to port.

By enabling fishing vessels to remain on the fishing grounds, transshipment reduces fuel costs and ensures faster delivery of catch to port. As a result, many vessels that fish in the high seas or in waters far from their home ports engage in the practice. Unfortunately, it also leaves the door open for mixing illegal catch with legitimate catch, drug smuggling, forced labor and human rights abuses. Fishing vessels can remain at sea for months or even years at a time, enabling captains to keep their crew at sea indefinitely and, in some cases, resulting in de facto slavery. As a pathway for illegal catch to enter the global market (an estimated $23.5 billion worth of fish annually worldwide is illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU)), transshipment prevents an accurate measurement of the amount of marine life being taken from the sea. It obscures the seafood supply chain from hook to port and hobbles efforts to manage fisheries sustainably. Occurring far from shore and out of sight, transshipment activities have traditionally been hard to manage and relatively invisible. Data on transshipment has been virtually nonexistent, proprietary, and rarely shared publicly – until now.

With generous support from the Walton Family Foundation, Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth are applying machine learning and satellite data to study global transshipment patterns and shine a light on what has historically been an opaque practice. Previously, no public, global database of transshipment vessels existed. So, as a first step to understand global transshipment activity, we developed one, combining data from vessel registries, hard-nosed internet investigations, and applying machine learning techniques to identify potential transshipment vessels. This first public, carrier vessel database includes roughly 680 vessels, predominated by large vessels operating within Russian waters or the high seas tuna/squid fleets.

In the Indian Ocean, off the remote Saya de Malha bank, the refrigerated cargo vessel (reefer) Leelawadee was seen with two unidentified likely fishing vessels tied alongside. Image Captured by DigitalGlobe on Nov. 30, 2016. Credit: DigitalGlobe © 2017. Image by DigitalGlobe via SkyTruth.

In the Indian Ocean, off the remote Saya de Malha bank, the refrigerated cargo vessel (reefer) Leelawadee was seen with two unidentified likely fishing vessels tied alongside. Image Captured by DigitalGlobe on Nov. 30, 2016. Credit: DigitalGlobe © 2017. Image by DigitalGlobe via SkyTruth.

With databases of fishing and transshipment vessels sorted, the next challenge was to identify where these vessels met at sea. To do this, the team analyzed over 30 billion vessel tracking signals (Automatic Identification System (AIS) messages) to identify potential transshipment encounters. AIS is a collision avoidance system that transmits a vessel’s location at sea and these transmissions are collected by land and satellite-based receivers and delivered to Global Fishing Watch for automated processing. Nearly all large transshipment vessels carry AIS making it possible to identify all locations where they loiter at sea long enough to receive a transshipment, or locations where two vessels (a transshipment vessel and a fishing vessel) are in close proximity long enough to transfer catch, crew or supplies.

Applying these two methods, we have presented the first open-source and global view of transshipment. We found that over half of transshipment behavior identified using AIS may occur in the high seas and these are generally associated with regions of reduced management and oversight. This lax oversight extends to the vessels involved in potential transshipments, with nearly half of the transshipment vessels we have identified registered to flags of convenience (countries with reduced oversight and limited connection to the vessel, if you’re interested this blog post has more details). As regulations for transshipment vary widely, the data alone do not suggest illegality, but reveal patterns and hotspots of activity, the vessels involved, and provides a new perspective which can further investigations around specific incidents and inform general policy discussions.

Global Fishing Watch’s new encounters layer reveals for the first time where and when thousands of vessels are involved in close encounters at sea. 

We are only just beginning to see the true impact of this unprecedented dataset, but already it has been used to identify vessels potentially involved in catching sharks that were illegally transported through the Galapagos (described here) and in an upcoming scientific paper by research collaborators at Dalhousie University, identifying those fisheries that most heavily utilize transshipment. Our partner, Oceana also analyzed the data in their report that identified patterns of likely transshipping, top ports visited by these vessels and vessels at sea for more than 500 days. Additionally, our models have been incorporated into recent efforts to estimate the costs and profitability of high seas fishing (described here), a set of potential transshipments have been incorporated as a layer within the Global Fishing Watch public map (here) and our work has supported investigations into human right abuses within fishing fleets (Greenpeace, 2018).

Our next steps involve extending these analyses to include “bunker” vessels which provide fuel to fishing vessels at sea, which along with transshipment vessels, play a critical role in supporting high seas, distant water fishing. Combining bunkering (refueling) and transshipment events, with vessel identities (owners/operators and flag states) and additional vessel events including port visits, we will identify the social network at sea. With generous support from the Walmart Foundation, over the coming years we will also explore transshipment in tuna fisheries, analysing and mapping activities that enable global tuna fleets to stay at sea for long periods without oversight. We hope this work will help global efforts to combat illegal and unsustainable tuna fishing.

The publication of this unprecedented dataset provide the first view of the global patterns of transshipment and is the first step towards greater transparency in a previously difficult to track activity. By making the underlying data freely available it can be used by governments, NGOs and academia to support both regional and global efforts to strengthen monitoring and enforcement to eliminate IUU fishing.

Science publishes Tracking the Global Footprint of Fisheries

Data on fishing activity out at sea has traditionally been imprecise, difficult to access, and spread between many different regulating authorities. With the publication today of “Tracking the Global Footprint of Fisheries” in Science and the release of a public dataset of global fishing effort we hope to enable researchers and fisheries managers to fully take advantage of AIS tracking data for ocean conservation. (Read this excellent article on the work in The Washington Post.)

The data and analysis presented in this paper have been the result of a long-term collaboration between researchers at SkyTruth, Global Fishing Watch, Google, and universities in the United States and Canada. The research has been led by David Kroodsma, research program manager at Global Fishing Watch. Other authors from the GFW and SkyTruth teams are Paul Woods, CTO of GFW, Nate Miller, SkyTruth research analyst, Tim Hochberg, machine learning engineer at GFW, and myself, an analyst at SkyTruth. Along with other academic researchers we have worked to characterize the population of vessels broadcasting AIS and to assess the limitations in AIS coverage and reception.

Central to the work being presented is a description of the data pipeline and modeling used to process the vast quantity of AIS data broadcast by the over 70,000 vessels now tracked in Global Fishing Watch. Machine learning was used to classify the tracks of these vessels and infer both where they were fishing and what type of fishing gear they were likely using. Based on vessel movements, models could even predict vessel characteristics like length and engine power.

The temporal and spatial precision of this new global fishing effort dataset highlighted some surprising regional variations. Weekends are often taken off by fishermen in Europe and North America. This is not the case on the Chinese coast where fishing is only interrupted by the Chinese New Year and a summer fishing moratorium. This can seen by comparing Chinese and non-Chinese fishing vessels in this data visualization from Global Fishing Watch.

The most distinct spatial patterns of fishing effort can be seen to result from differences in regulation.  More subtle effects are seen from variables like sea surface temperature and net primary production. Below, you can see 2016 fishing effort off the coast of Patagonia, which shows both intense fishing activity by foreign vessels just outside the EEZ boundary and a checkerboard pattern within the EEZ due to Argentine regulation of the hake fishery.

The data appearing in the image above is part of the public dataset that is being released along with our paper. Researchers can select maps for different regions or fishing gear types and also download the raw data underlying the images. To learn more about the study and to access the data, click here.

This publication and data release is a milestone for our analysis of the global AIS dataset for fishing vessels but we still have a lot learn about the patterns of vessel movements we have characterized here. We hope our work can spur an increase in the use of AIS tracking data for fisheries research and regulation and we look forward to working with more partners to better understand this new data resource for marine conservation.

 

Reefer Fined $5.9 Million for Endangered Catch in Galapagos Recently Rendezvoused with Chinese Longliners

The reefer Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 is intercepted by the Ecuadorian Navy on August 13, 2017. Image accessed at: Armada del Ecuador.

Today the government of Ecuador took a strong environmental stance with its sentence for the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, a Chinese refrigerated cargo ship (reefer) caught in the Galapagos with the remains of more than 6,000 sharks, including endangered hammerheads. Catching or transporting sharks within the Galapagos Reserve is illegal. The incident set off widespread protests in the Galapagos and in the cities of Quito and Guayaquil. The large fine, coupled with a prison sentence of four years for the vessel’s captain shows the determination of Ecuadorians to defend this unique marine environment.

Along with our partners at Global Fishing Watch, we have taken a detailed look at the past activity of this vessel and found the reefer rendezvoused with a fleet of Chinese longliners in the week just before the vessel’s detention.  

According to news reports, a chance sighting of a Chinese cargo vessel within the Galapagos Marine Reserve on Saturday, August 12th, led to a chase and the eventual detention of the vessel by the Ecuadorean Navy the following day. During the hearings, two vessels were named as providing the catch, reported as the Taiwanese vessels Hai Fang 301 and Hai Fang 302. The catch transshipment reportedly occurred between August 5th and 7th more than a thousand miles west of the Galapagos.

Our AIS tracking data does confirm vessel rendezvous on the dates reported but not with the vessels named. The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 is seen departing Fuzhou on the Chinese coast on July 7th and then transiting directly across the Pacific toward Ecuador. On August 5th at a remote location in the Eastern Pacific 1700 miles west of the Galapagos, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 stopped and spent the next three days moving at a slow speed.

Rendezvous between the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 (black) and four Chinese longliners, Fu Yuan Yu 7866 (blue), Fu Yuan Yu 7861 (green), Fu Yuan Yu 7865 (purple), and Fu Yuan Yu 7862 (yellow). The longliners can be seen to each rendezvous with the reeefer for about 12 hours between August 5th and August 7th, 2017. (image by Global Fishing Watch, August , 2017)

Checking for vessels in the vicinity, I found a fleet of four Chinese longliners moving alongside the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 in very close proximity, the Fu Yuan Yu 7866, 7861, 7865, and 7862. No vessels identifying as Hai Fang (more likely Hai Feng) are seen in the vicinity. With distances of only 30 meters between the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 and the Fu Yuan Yu longliners, it appears the longliners were tied up to the cargo vessel with each longliner spending about 12 hours attached to the reefers. These lengthy rendezvous at sea suggest a substantial transfer of cargo was possible.

 

Vessel

IMO

Callsign

MMSI

Fu Yuan Yu 7866 9828716 BVYT7 412440549
Fu Yuan Yu 7861 9828663 BVYX7 412440551
Fu Yuan Yu 7865 9828704 BVYS7 412440558
Fu Yuan Yu 7862 9828675 BVYY7 412440552

Details of rendezvous between the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 and the four Fu Yuan Yu longliners. Click on the listed vessel names above for the individual tracks. (image by Global Fishing Watch, August , 2017)

The four Fu Yuan Yu longliners were fishing on the high seas in the Eastern Pacific for the three months prior to rendezvousing with the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999. Click to view vessel tracks in Global Fishing Watch.

The practice of at sea transshipment of catch between fishing vessels and refrigerated cargo ships is common but can result in the mixing of fish caught legally and illegally. Transshipment also enables vessel operators to keep their crew at sea for many months on end where they may face abusive labor conditions or even slavery. Transshipments on the high seas are regulated by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMO’s).

The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 can be seen rendezvousing with the Chinese longline vessels within the area of the eastern Pacific regulated by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). While the four Chinese longliners are currently authorized to fish by the IATTC, a recent publication of a list of carrier vessels authorized by the IATTC does not include the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999.

Following the track of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, the vessel reached the edge of the Galapagos EEZ on August 12th. At this point, the track of the vessel is broken up by some AIS transmission errors resulting in several extended periods where no location for the vessel came through. While this seemed suspicious, it was possible to check the length of these gaps in the vessel’s track and determine the vessel maintained an average speed of around 10 knots during the hours when the vessel was not trackable. This 10-knot speed matches the vessel’s normal transit speed, and for this reason, it seems unlikely that the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 could have stopped to transship with any local vessels in the vicinity of the Galapagos.

The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 entered the Galapagos EEZ area on August 12th. Several long gaps occur due to faulty AIS transsmision but our analysis shows that the vessel likely maintained a normal transit speed during these gaps. The vessel was then intercepted on the 13th. To the southeast more than one hundred Chinese squid vessels cluster near the EEZ boundary. This fleet has moved north from typical fishing grounds at the edge of Peru’s EEZ. Includes material © 2017 exactEarth Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Checking the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999’s track over the past few years shows the vessel was operating in a few locations where suspicious or unregulated fishing activity has been documented. These locations include the northwest Indian Ocean with an unregulated squid fleet through 2016 as documented in a report by Fish-i Africa and East Timor where Chinese vessels expelled from Indonesia have relocated.

Given the history of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, we are encouraged to see the vessel held accountable for its crimes by the Ecuadorian authorities. Our analysis shows four Fu Yuan Yu longliners are likely the source of the catch confiscated from the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999. We hope these vessels will also be sanctioned for illegally transferring catch and regulators will take further action to monitor and restrict transshipment at-sea.

Read more details on this story on the blog of our partner Global Fishing Watch.

 

 

Indonesia’s Fishing Vessel Tracking Data Now Available to the Public

Today, a big announcement was made at The Ocean Conference at the United Nations: the Republic of Indonesia has made its fishing activity data public by allowing it to be published in Global Fishing Watch. This is an unprecedented move — governments that require vessels to use their proprietary vessel management systems (VMS) typically restrict access to the system; data is made available to government and enforcement agencies but not the general public. But Susi Pudjiastuti, the head of Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (the Kementerian Kelautan dan Perikanan RI, or KKP, for short), believes that making government fisheries data visible to the public is a powerful way to engage civil society in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Global Fishing Watch, a joint project of SkyTruth, Oceana and Google, relies on publicly-broadcast Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals, rarely used by vessels in Indonesian waters. AIS tends to be used by larger vessels — typically vessels greater than 300 gross tonnage or longer than 15 meters. Much of the fishing in Indonesian waters is carried out on smaller vessels. If you take a look at Global Fishing Watch with and without Indonesia’s VMS data in Indonesian waters, it’s astonishing to see how much fishing activity is added when the VMS data of the second largest fishing nation in the world is included. Indonesia requires all vessels greater than 30 gross tonnage to use its VMS:

View a larger version here.

Minister Susi is calling for other nations to follow her lead, and the Global Fishing Watch partners are committing to process, for free, VMS data from any country that agrees to make its data public through Global Fishing Watch, for free. Her decision is already making a difference — yesterday at this conference, the Republic of Peru announced (Spanish version) that it too will commit its VMS data to Global Fishing Watch in the near future. We hope that other countries will realize the advantages of transparency and soon follow suit.

Today’s announcement is the culmination of two years of behind-the-scenes work with the KKP. In 2015, during a visit to Google headquarters, Minister Susi saw a demonstration of Global Fishing Watch given by Brian Sullivan of Google Oceans & Earth Outreach and SkyTruth’s Paul Woods, and she expressed interest in having a similar tool that her Ministry could use in fighting IUU fishing. Paul said that he thought such a collaboration might be possible, but that because AIS is generally not used in Indonesian waters, it would be necessary for the KKP to make its own VMS data available to GFW in order for there to be any data to work with. Remarkably, Minister Susi agreed.

Since then, SkyTruth team members have made several trips back and forth to Indonesia to work with KKP staff — processing the data and applying algorithms already used for AIS to the VMS data, and sharing insights about the data with KKP staff that they can use to identify illegal activity and manage Indonesia’s globally important fisheries more effectively. Meetings via Skype and Google Hangouts had to be scheduled early in the morning and late at night so that they could span the vast number of time zones occupied by team members in Europe, the Americas and Southeast Asia. SkyTruth hired Imam Prakoso in Jakarta to meet regularly with the KKP, and recruited Aaron Roan, a former Google engineer, to work with the data and the algorithms.

Starting today, Indonesian VMS data will be part of Global Fishing Watch and available to anyone who wants to view it; the VMS data will be updated daily. In addition, the KKP has been given its own mapping tool to use for monitoring fishing in Indonesian waters. The Indonesian VMS fishing activity data is shown on a separate layer, so that it can be turned on and off as the user wishes.

We’d like to give a shout out to the people and organizations that made today’s announcement possible: to the teams at SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch, to Global Fishing Watch partners Google and Oceana, and to Minister Susi and her staff at the KKP. SkyTruth’s participation in this major effort is made possible by grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

 

Big Data Brings Big Transparency to Indonesia’s Fisheries

Indonesia is leading the way towards a new era of transparency in fisheries management by making its Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) data available to Global Fishing Watch (GFW). This is an unprecedented move.

Traditionally, VMS data is kept secret and used only by government agencies like Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs (KKP) and affiliated enforcement agencies. The head of the KKP, Susi Pudjiastuti, referred to as “Minister Susi” by nearly everyone, is a champion of sustainable fishing in Indonesian waters, and has taken major steps to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Her policy of publicly blowing up and sinking (empty) vessels caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters has been wildly popular. Now that Minister Susi has partnered with GFW, anyone with a browser and internet access will be able to see Indonesia’s VMS data on the GFW map, beginning in June.

Data Scientist Aaron Roan is taking the lead at SkyTruth to integrate Indonesia’s VMS data into Global Fishing Watch. A former Googler, Aaron joined the SkyTruth team officially in January, but he has been involved in the GFW project for a while, on loan from Google as a volunteer. Like many SkyTruthers, Aaron works remotely, usually from San Francisco. However, this project means that lately he’s traveling regularly to Indonesia.

SkyTruthers Aaron Roan (left) and Paul Woods sightseeing in Jakarta during The Economist World Ocean Summit 2017.

Aaron is in charge of integrating VMS data into Global Fishing Watch. Naturally, there have been some interesting challenges and adventures along the way, starting with some pretty big differences between AIS data, which GFW is currently using, and VMS data.

AIS is a well-established and standardized open system developed to keep ships from running into each other, while VMS systems are custom-created specifically to allow government fishing agencies to privately monitor and communicate with vessels. Ships using AIS are essentially just chirping their locations to the world (“I’m here, I’m here!”) using public radio airwaves. VMS systems are more like text-messaging systems on phones, sending and receiving encrypted, privacy-protected information.

Vessel congestion is often an issue for AIS: the satellites that collect AIS broadcasts from vessels have a circular “footprint” 3,000 miles wide (more than the width of the United States) and the system can only receive an AIS ping once every 27 milliseconds, or 2,250 per minute. If there is a lot of vessel traffic in one location, smaller vessels using the weaker class B AIS systems get throttled in preference to larger class A vessels. This means that it’s possible for a vessel to be chirping its location frequently, but when there are a lot of ships in the area, pings may only be infrequently received.

VMS systems can handle a lot more signals than AIS, and better manage problems like colliding messages from multiple ships. However, the cost per message is relatively expensive, so government agencies often dial the systems back to receive fewer messages from ships in a given time period. According to Aaron, if Aesop were still around, he would call VMS the tortoise, and AIS the hare.

Despite these differences, initial integration test results have been positive, with the VMS data adding a tremendous amount of new data to GFW. Below, you can see the difference between Global Fishing Watch with and without the VMS data. AIS data is shown in green and the new Indonesian VMS data in white:

You can see it here in full-screen mode:

We are lucky to have Imam Prakoso, our “on-the-ground” guy in Indonesia, working on this project. With his engineering background, he provides support to the analysis and helps out with language translation. He’s been pivotal in terms of being able to meet regularly with KKP staff and in navigating the ministry’s organizational structure.

Brian Sullivan, Paul Woods, Imam Prakoso and Aaron in Jakarta

Chris Wilcox‘s team at CSIRO, currently consulting with the KKP, has been hugely helpful as well. With our data and algorithms, and his analytical acumen, we believe we’re in a strong position to help out multiple teams within the KKP.

None of this would have been possible without Minister Susi’s innovative approach to fighting IUU fishing, and the generous financial support of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Walton Family Foundation.

Transparency in commercial fishing benefits everyone (with the possible exception of those engaging in illegal activities). More accurate data in commercial fishing will allow for better regulation, management, and sustainability of an important food and job source in the future. We hope that other governments will follow Minister Susi’s bold initiative and make their own fishing data transparent. With Aaron on the team now, we’re ready to help!

Mystery Moves: What is the Chinese Squid Fleet Doing in the Pacific?

Over the past couple of months, SkyTruth analyst Bjorn Bergman has been watching some interesting activity by the Chinese fishing fleet in the Pacific. A large Chinese flagged squid-fishing fleet had been fishing at the boundary of Peru’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) throughout the summer and fall of 2016. Then, near the middle of December, many of them suddenly began migrating some 3,000 miles to the northwest.

At their new location, around 118 degrees West longitude and just north of the equator, they met up with another group of Chinese-flagged vessels. These vessels had just moved to this remote part of the Pacific about a week or two earlier. Some arrived from China and Indonesia, and some came directly from fishing just outside the Japanese EEZ.

This screen shot from the Global Fishing Watch map shows the movement of 55 Chinese flagged vessels from early November 2016 through February 5, 2017. You can see vessels moving to a single location around 118 degrees West longitude from the western Pacific (red tracks), and from the squid fishing grounds just outside the Peru EEZ (blue tracks). Some vessels off the Peru EEZ also moved south to Argentina. You will find a link to see these tracks on the live map at the bottom of this post.

When fishing for squid, fishers use powerful lights to attract the animals to the surface for an easy catch. This nighttime VIIRS imagery from the Suomi-NPP satellite, taken on January 29, 2017, shows the lights of Chinese squid fishing vessels off of Peru, and at the new location in the middle of the Pacific.

The same pattern is seen using satellite signals from fishing vessels.

This Global Fishing Watch heat map shows the AIS signals from fishing vessels from January 9 to February 2, 2017. With one fishing track defined in blue, we can see the path of the Chinese squid fleet moving from just outside the Peru EEZ to a location on the high seas.

The new location of these vessels is not known for squid. It is also an unlikely habitat as squid usually live near continental shelves and canyons where there are steep changes in water depth. It’s unclear what the vessels are fishing for now, but the sudden move from the eastern Pacific may be a reflection of a dwindling catch.

Usually Chinese flagged squid fishers operating around South America concentrate off of Peru in the Pacific and Argentina in the Atlantic Ocean. For the past few years, some squid-fishing fleets have seen their catch decline in both regions.  Undercurrent News reports that some Taiwanese boat captains abandoned squid altogether because of low catch. They are now targeting Pacific saury (mackerel pike), which is found in the north Pacific.

Perhaps the Chinese fleet around South America has also given up on catching squid. We noted that when many of the Chinese vessels off Peru began moving to the northwest, some of them turned south, headed for Argentina, but according to Undercurrent, Chinese captains who moved to Argentina said they wish they had stayed in Peru because the catch was so bad.

The fleet that stayed in Peru may not have fared much better. By February 7, only three Chinese squid-fishing vessels remained in that location. Why so many have moved some 3,000 km to the northwest, and what they’re fishing for now remains a mystery to us. Whatever it is, it’s also drawn a crowd of Chinese vessels from the western Pacific. We checked in with the Southern Pacific Regional Management Organization that has jurisdiction over the area, and even they are not sure what the sudden change in location by this fleet means. 

We would be very interested to hear from anyone who can help explain it.

Click here to see these vessels on the Global Fishing Watch Map where you can manipulate the time frame, zoom in, add vessels. Note: you will need to be registered to access the map (it’s free). If you are already a registered user, and the map link isn’t working, please log in then copy the link into your browser. http://globalfishingwatch.org/map/workspace/udw-627b8ae0-02f3-4fd1-b080-119462b69c8c