Risk Factors for Forced Labor May Show Up in Fishing Vessels' AIS Data

File image courtesy Environmental Justice Foundation

Published Dec 22, 2020 9:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

The satellite tracking organization Global Fishing Watch believes that it has identified ways to remotely detect fishing vessels that are likelier to use forced labor, based solely upon their pattern of movement. 

According to the NGO, case study reports and discussions with human rights practitioners suggest that vessels using forced labor may behave quite differently from vessels that do not. Through an interview process with stakeholders, Global Fishing Watch identified over two dozen possible indicators of forced labor that can be observed using vessel monitoring data from satellites. These characteristics - like extended time at sea, avoidance of ports and  cargo transshipment - may indicate that a vessel has a higher chance of being engaged in coercing or enslaving its crew. 

Pairing these known factors with satellite data from 22 fishing vessels known or suspected to use forced labor, the organization says that it confirmed that vessels using forced labor behaved in measurably different ways from the rest of the global fishing fleet. The main factors aligned with distant-water squid jigger and longliner fishing operations, and they included:  

  • Distance from port
  • Vessel engine power
  • Daily fishing hours
  • Fishing hours in high seas
  • Voyages per year

Using the characteristics derived from the 22 suspect vessels, Global Fishing Watch examined a database of 16,000 fishing vessels in operation between 2012-2018. Based on its analysis, it estimated that up to 25 percent of the fleet (4,000 vessels) displayed data patterns suggestive of forced labor in at least one year over that period. Squid jiggers led the pack, with over 75 percent showing movement patterns comparable to those of vessels with known forced labor. Longliners followed, with half or more showing comparable patterns. Squid jiggers and longliners flagged to China and longliners flagged to South Korea, Japan and Taiwan were most frequently found to show high risk characteristics.

"High-risk longliner activity is widespread geographically, with hotspots in the western Indian Ocean, the coasts off West Africa and South Africa, and the central Atlantic," said Global Fishing Watch in a statement. "Areas to the west and southeast of South America, in the northwestern Pacific and in the northern Indian Ocean are hotspots for high-risk squid jiggers."

Based on the data, the NGO believes that it should be possible to identify higher-risk vessels for targeted port state control inspections - though more vessel data and inspection reports would be required. Global Fishing Watch also encouraged flag states to ratify the ILO Work in Fishing Convention, require the use of vessel identification numbers and tracking systems, and monitor transshipment activity between fishing vessels and reefer ships on the high seas.