Currently, passenger ships and large merchant vessels have to carry unique and unchangeable International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers, and to operate equipment allowing real-time tracking.
But other craft on the high seas – the international waters that make up nearly half of the planet’s surface – do not. The UN has previously noted that this facilitates trafficking of people, drugs and weapons, and illegal fishing.
"In the 21st Century, when governments are doing so much to make their borders and their citizens secure, it seems extraordinary that they’ve left a loophole big enough to sail a trawler full of explosives through," said former Costa Rican President José María Figueres, who jointly chairs the Global Ocean Commission with Trevor Manuel, Minister in the South African Presidency and David Miliband, the former UK Foreign Secretary and incoming President of the International Rescue Committee.
"There are details to be worked through, such as the cost of tracking systems, although from evidence we’ve heard so far we don’t think that will be an obstacle.
"But in principle, for the security of citizens around the world, it seems clear that it’s time to close the loophole.’
Following the Mumbai bombing in 2008, which used a fishing vessel hijacked on the high seas, Indian authorities made tracking equipment mandatory on fishing vessels and other craft in their national waters. Many other countries are also implementing its use.
"Governments are well aware of the security issue, and many of them are taking steps to combat it in their own waters," said Mr Manuel.
"But when we get to the high seas, it’s a different matter; there’s been very little progress, despite clear evidence of criminal activity including piracy, drug smuggling and illegal fishing.
"When merchant ships have to be identifiable and trackable, there’s no reason we can see why other types of vessel should get a free ride.’
Satellite AIS systems can track vessels everywhere in the world. Image copyright ExactEarth
Mandatory vessel ID and tracking would also benefit human rights and sustainable fishing, observed David Miliband.
"It seems pretty obvious that if authorities know who owns a vessel, where it is and where it’s sailing to, then the owners of the vessel are much more likely to stay within the law," he said.
"Mandatory vessel ID and tracking would reward those who play by the rules and penalise those who don’t – it would create economic opportunities for the “good guys”, and improve the social conditions of seafarers."
Commissioners Obiageli Ezekwesili and Cristina Narbona at the meeting in New York
In 2011, a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report on illegal fishing documented cases where …’fishers are held as de facto prisoners of the sea… a particularly disturbing facet of this form of exploitation is the frequency of child trafficking in the fishing industry’.
Vessels engaged in crime are known to change their name and flag States (where they are legally based) regularly to avoid detection. Carrying a unique and unchangeable IMO number makes this impossible.
The UNODC report also noted that vessels engaged in criminal activities are more likely to be involved in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
IUU vessels are thought to account for about one fifth of the global fish catch, and by definition operate outside of all regulations, making sustainable management impossible in areas where they are rife.
The IMO is currently debating whether to remove the exemption given to fishing vessels from the regulations concerning identification numbers. But even if the exemption is removed, vessels would be encouraged, not mandated, to carry them.
The Global Ocean Commission issued its vessel monitoring call at the conclusion of a meeting in New York on 5-6 July.