West Africa harbours ocean waters rich in pelagic and demersal species,[1] yet also intensely harvested. Many commercially significant stocks are either fully or overexploited, and vulnerable to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.[2] A significant proportion of industrial fishing activity is carried out by distant water fishing fleets, including those of the European Union, Russia, and China. Vessels belonging to these and other fleets have been associated with IUU fishing activities in the region, and documented cases may well be unrepresentative of the total number. Indeed, IUU fishing activities are often difficult to ascertain due to their secretive nature, and a lack of effective monitoring and surveillance capabilities in the region’s coastal States.[3] There is also a significant incidence of de-stabilising activities, particularly in certain areas of the Gulf of Guinea, including serious crimes such as piracy, armed robbery, and drug trafficking.[4] Fishing vessels can contribute to this de-stabilisation: IUU fishing has been shown to pose a threat, undermining the security of coastal States and their people, and exacerbating other security stressors.[5]

Transhipment and its association with IUU fishing and maritime crime

The complex relationship between the fishing industry and transnational maritime crime was highlighted in 2011 by UNODC, shedding light into the operational synergies that interconnect fishing operations, specially IUU fishing activities, and drugs trafficking and other forms of criminality.[6] The contribution that fishing vessels make towards drug trafficking globally has recently been estimated, suggesting that shipments on board of industrial fishing vessels average at 2.4 tonnes per seizure, with artisanal vessels averaging at circa 0.8 tonnes per seizure, but commanding higher prices. The stakes are high, and West Africa has been identified as one of the hotspots.[7]

Transhipment (nighttime). Image credit: Juan Vilata

Transhipment at sea gives vessels operational options, including the opportunity to relocate items away from the scrutiny of port authorities. Hence, transhipment is often an integral part of maritime crime.[8] Simply put, transhipment involves offloading cargo from one vessel to another. This can be fish, but also provisions or any other cargo, including crew. It is far from uncommon, especially in remote high seas, where it is particularly difficult to oversee. Significant investment in monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) is often necessary to ensure that unauthorised transhipment and other IUU fishing operations are identified.[9]

The complexity of MCS needs should not be underestimated. The capacity levels that are often required are exemplified by the recent collaborative programme between EFCA and the States of the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC), through which a surveillance operation was undertaken. This involved not only VMS monitoring, but also the satellite and radar equipment of the European Copernicus service, as well as coordinate information exchange efforts of the national authorities of the SRFC member States.[10] Unfortunately, these special cooperation programmes are usually time-limited, and in routine scenarios national capabilities can and often do fall short of the technical capacity needed to address all IUU fishing activity successfully. Around the globe, countries concerned about their maritime security and the activation of their blue economies have invested in advanced satellite fisheries intelligence programmes.[11] Although States in West Africa are working towards increasing their capacity to fully implement effective MCS systems, they have not yet achieved the kind of MCS capacity that would enable them to control IUU fishing activities comprehensively and effectively.[12]

A game of smoke and mirrors

Although transhipment usually occurs between a fishing vessel and a refrigerated cargo vessel (often referred to as reefers), controls may be further complicated by the fact that other ships can also perform transhipment operations and other activities such as bunkering.[13] Of course, the non-compulsory nature of AIS, specially in waters where the presence of piracy and other violent crimes often justifies decisions to turn it off, means that effective monitoring via AIS alone can be very difficult. Nevertheless, erratic AIS readings can be indicative of activity that could form part of IUU operation patterns. For example, a vessel could disconnect AIS whilst moving toward safer waters where fishing vessels are known to be operating. It should be highlighted that such irregularities do not constitute evidence of wrongdoing per se, but they could be an indication of possible risk that an unauthorised transhipment is taking place. This is specially so in regions where IUU fishing transgressions involving transhipment are routinely documented.[14]

By way of example, recent research in the Indian Ocean has suggested that cases of unauthorised transhipment may be linked to bunkering activity. Though difficult to detect with conventional VMS and satellite automatic identification systems (AIS) controls, the researchers observed the presence of bunker vessels in the vicinity of fishing vessels and large factory trawlers, whose AIS signals suggested erratic behaviour, indicating the possibility of multiple re-supplying operations rather than fuelling.[15] Available AIS readings suggest that these scenarios are likely to be replicated in other regions, particularly in areas that continue to suffer from a high incidence of IUU fishing events, and where vessels able to perform bunkering as well as transhipment are present, such as West Africa.

Transhipment (daytime). Image credit: Juan Vilata

Recent research undertaken with satellite based AIS and satellite assisted radar in parts of the South East Atlantic managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), comprising both the EEZ of Ascension Island and surrounding high seas areas, unveiled behaviour indicative of possible unauthorised fishing and transhipment and/or bunkering or supply, particularly around the EEZ borders, and especially by long liners.[16] Further, ICCAT records also indicate that transhipments are engaged into without adequate supervision, and that they may well be avoid inspection because fish and other cargo transfers are often impossible to differentiate from bunkering and supply operations.[17]

Further, as already stated, unauthorised transhipment is often an enabler to transnational maritime crime. Enquiry into the free online facility www.spyglass.fish reveals that drug trafficking offences have been documented in the West African region, both across the high seas and the EEZs of a number of States, all occurring alongside a very high volume of unauthorised fishing activity across the region. These overlaps, coupled with unusual or unexplained AIS readings, suggest an operational risk profile that warrants significant control and monitoring effort, as well as the adoption of surveillance mechanisms to safeguard compliance.

The ICCAT management area. Image credit: ICCAT

Responsibilities of States with regard to transhipment

Under UNCLOS Part V, coastal States must ensure that fishing activities in their EEZ are appropriately managed (especially important are Articles 61 to 64 in this regard). As ITLOS highlighted in paragraph 113 of its Advisory Opinion, member States of the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission must ensure that transhipments occur in specially designated harbours, amongst other requirements.

The responsibilities of flag States in the EEZ of coastal States were also discussed in detail by the ITLOS in its Advisory Opinion. In paragraph 114, ITLOS indicated that flag States must ensure compliance with the laws and regulations of the coastal States in which their vessels operate – this is of course not an optional matter or a courtesy: when it comes to fishing activities in the EEZs of coastal States, flag States have specific obligations under Articles 58.3 [“States shall have due regard to the rights and duties of the coastal State and shall comply with the laws and regulations adopted by the coastal State in accordance with the provisions of this Convention and other rules of international law (…)”] and 62.4 [“Nationals of other States fishing in the exclusive economic zone shall comply with the conservation measures and with the other terms and conditions established in the laws and regulations of the coastal State (…)”].[18]

Transhipment in West Africa. Image Credit: Richard White, Lindblad Expeditions

In addition, flag States have general obligations – see in particular UNCLOS Articles 94 concerning the exercise of effective jurisdiction and control over fishing vessels in the high seas, and Article 192 regarding the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment in all ocean areas.[19] These responsibilities are refined and complemented by obligations established in other important international instruments.[20] Further, regional agreements frequently impose additional and often very specific duties. In the West African fishing grounds of the Atlantic the measures adopted by ICCAT should be complied with, so that the fishing and transhipment activities occurring in the area can be appropriately monitored.[21] Under ICCAT rules, only vessels that have been authorised to engage in transhipment can receive fishing products from fishing vessels lawfully operating in the regulated area.

Yet, ICCAT rules on the monitoring of transhipment is widely regarded as insufficient. In particular, whereas purse seiners carry 100% observer coverage when operating in the ICCAT area, long-liners are subjected to little scrutiny by comparison.[22] The ICCAT member States had an opportunity but failed to enhance their approach to monitoring in their latest (2019) meeting of the parties.[23] This has occurred against a backdrop in which historical VMS data is contributed to ICCAT by the relevant vessels’ flag States, but has been acknowledged as difficult to navigate and process in order to clarify compliance.[24]

Such voids in ensuring appropriate monitoring of transhipment, a high-risk operation for the purposes of IUU fishing and maritime crime, leaves significant opportunities for wrongdoing, particularly in an area where satellite MCS approaches are still in development and the EEZs of coastal states are vulnerable to unauthorised intrusion. This void in monitoring requirements also perpetuates a discrepancy in fishery conduct standards across different vessel types that is difficult to justify in an international decision-making forum with important management competences. Indeed, RFMOs such as ICCAT are key fora where States bring into effect their international obligation to cooperate in matters of conservation and management of transnational fish stocks. International cooperation is a responsibility that is not satisfied simply by ticking a box for attendance to meetings, but also requires a conduct that makes negotiation and ensuing decision-making meaningful.[25] Indeed, this is what to a great extent furnishes the regulatory output of RFMOs with an authoritative force, especially when it comes to considerations involving the characterisation of activities as IUU fishing, including the activities of non-members. Needless to say, this authoritative strength should not be undermined by maintaining necessary controls weak – least of all by the members themselves.

Republished with the kind permission of the author Dr. Mercedes Rosello July 2020  

The author would like to thank Dr. Dirk Siebels and Dr. Ife Sinachi Okafor-Yarwood for the provision of valuable information for the elaboration of this blog, as well as Dr. Dyhia Belhabib for facilitating free data via the Spyglass online platform, and Juan Vilata for access to photographic material. Any errors contained in this blog post are the author’s alone.


[1] J Alder, and UR Sumaila, ‘Western Africa; A Fish Basket of Europe Past and Present’ (2004) 13(2) The Journal of Environment & Development 156-178, 160.

[2] D Belhabib, UR Sumaila, and P Le Billon, ‘The fisheries of Africa: Exploitation, policy, and maritime security trends’ (2019) 101 Marine Policy 80-92, 81.

[3] I Okafor-Yarwood, and D Belhabib, ‘The duplicity of the European Union Common Fisheries Policy in third countries: Evidence from the Gulf of Guinea’ (2020) 184 Ocean and Coastal Management 1-11, 2.

[4] D Belhabib et al, page 86. See also D Siebels, ‘Pirates, smugglers and corrupt officials – maritime security in East and West Africa’ (2020) 1(1) International Journal of Maritime Crime & Security 34-49.

[5] I Okafor-Yarwood, ‘The cyclical nature of maritime security threats: illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing as a threat to human and national security in the Gulf of Guinea’ (2020) 13(2) African Security 116-146, 122.

[6] E De Coning, ‘Transnational Organized Crime in the Fishing Industry’ (UNODC, 2011).

[7] D Belhabib, P Le Billon, and DJ Wrathall, ‘Narco-Fish: Global fisheries and drug trafficking’ (2020) Fish and Fisheries, 1-16, 6.

[8] See I Chapsos, and S Hamilton, ‘Illegal fishing and fisheries crime as a transnational organized crime in Indonesia’ (2018) 22 Trends in Organized Crime 255-273.

[9] For more information on transhipment activities, see NA Miller et al, ‘Global Patterns of Transshipment Behavior’ (2018) Frontiers in Marine Science 240.

[10] See https://www.efca.europa.eu/en/content/pressroom/sub-regional-fisheries-commission-srfc-efca-and-france-fight-against-illegal.

[11] See for example https://www.verumar.com

[12] Comfahat-Atlafco, ‘Workshop on Monitoring, Control and Surveillance: and effective tool to fight against IUU fishing’ (2015) 4.

[13] See for example: https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:5260334/mmsi:538007413/imo:9766281/vessel:LAETITIA_V

[14] See https://wnwd.com/blog/something-smells-fishy/.

[15] JH Ford, B Bergseth, and C Wilcox, ‘Chasing the fish oil – Do bunker vessels hold the key to fisheries crime networks?’ (2018) Frontiers in Marine Science https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00267.

[16] G Rowlands et al, ‘Satellite surveillance of fishing vessel activity in the Ascension Island

[17] ICCAT, Doc. No. COC-312/2019.

[18] ITLOS in Paragraph 111 of its Advisory Opinion refers broadly to ‘nationals’ rather than just vessels registered to the flag State [‘Advisory Opinion’].

[19] See Advisory Opinion from paragraphs 117 to 124, and 136.

[20] In particular, the UN Fish Stocks Agreement is a treaty of profound significance for the management of highly migratory and straddling species that occur partially in the EEZ.

[21] See http://www.fao.org/fishery/rfb/iccat/en#Org-Mission.

[22] See: https://iss-foundation.org/iccat-moves-to-protect-atlantic-bigeye-and-close-gaps-in-monitoring-and-data-collection/.

[23] See https://www.globaltunaalliance.com/general/the-global-tuna-alliance-considers-the-outcomes-from-iccat-26th-november-2019/

[24] See M Ortiz, A Justel-Rubio, and A Parrilla, ‘Preliminary Analyses of the ICCAT VMS Data 2010-2011 to Identify Fishing Trip Behavior and Estimate Fishing Effort’ (2013) 69(1) Collect. Vol. Sci. Pap. ICCAT 462-481.

[25] M Hayashi, ‘The Management of Transboundary Fish Stocks under the LOS Convention’ (1993) 8(2) International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law 245-262, 252.