The IMO decision, adopted at the 2013 General Assembly in London (4 December 2013), paves the way for large-scale fishing vessels (over 100 gross tonnes) being required to have a unique 7-digit IMO number, which remains with the vessel throughout its life, irrespective of any name, flag or ownership changes.
At this stage the scheme will be voluntary, but it is expected that some countries will require their large scale fishing vessels to have IMO numbers, and there have already been moves by two major Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) to make the numbers mandatory. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) have both voted to make the numbers mandatory for boats fishing in the areas they manage.
The use of IMO numbers is a key tool to promote transparency and traceability in some of the areas most affected by pirate fishing. In West Africa, Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has documented boats using multiple identities, and changing their flags, names and radio call signs to avoid detection and sanctions. In one case investigated by EJF in 2012, a pirate vessel inspected in Sierra Leone was found to have three identities, and the crew reportedly repainted different names on the vessel on a regular basis.
In another case identified by EJF, a Korean-flagged vessel responsible for serious illegal fishing offences fled Sierra Leone to neighboring Guinea, where it changed its name and radio call sign to mask its illegal activities. The case was highlighted in a recent European Commission Decision that warned Korea it may face a trade ban on fisheries products if it does not take action to stop pirate fishing by its vessels.
In a further development in the global fight against pirate fishing, the Spanish Fishing Confederation (CEPESCA) reacted to the IMO decision by calling on all Spanish vessels over 100 gross tonnes to obtain an IMO number as soon as possible. CEPESCA represents 950 fishing companies and 1040 fishing boats operating in EU waters and around the world.
EJF is now calling on the EU to require all EU vessels and all vessels that export to the EU to be required to have an IMO number, coastal States to request IMO numbers from vessels when they apply for a fishing license, and for other RFMOs to adopt the numbering scheme. As well as the use of IMO numbers, EJF is also calling for the UN to speed up the development of a Global Record of fishing vessels - an international database that would hold vessels’ IMO numbers as well as information on their ownership, flag, history and fishing licenses. The Global Record has been approved by the UN Committee on Fisheries, but progress has so far been slow in establishing the database.
EJF Executive Director Steve Trent said: “IMO numbers and a Global Record of fishing vessels are key tools in enabling enforcement authorities to track and identify pirate fishing vessels, and to support companies in the seafood sector to gather more information about the vessels involved in their supply chains.”
“EJF applauds the decision by the Spanish Fishing Confederation to support this all important initiative that will drive transparency and traceability in global seafood supply chains, helping to combat pirate fishing operations that cause so much damage to marine biodiversity, undermine legitimate businesses and steal from some of the poorest on our planet.”
“We are now calling on the UN to urgently develop a Global Record of fishing vessels, and the EU to provide crucial international leadership by requiring all EU vessels over 100 gross tonnes, and foreign vessels exporting to the EU, to have an IMO number. Without this simple, practical and cost-effective step, we won’t be able to prevent illegally-caught fish from entering our markets.”