From the Editor: Fishing Vessel Tracking

Could there be more government regulations for fishing vessels on the horizon? At least one environmental group hopes so, and is even advocating for it.

An analysis released in mid-April by the non-profit conservation organization Oceana has put a spotlight on America’s requirements for transparency of fishing vessels. Specifically, the study says the U.S. falls short of other countries’ requirements.

This, according to Oceana, reinforces the need for the U.S. government to expand regulations and require more fishing vessels to use public tracking devices enabled by automatic identification system (AIS), which was originally developed to increase maritime safety, reduce vessel collisions, and enhance awareness of vessel locations at sea.

Over time, however, AIS has also become a tool for monitoring fishing vessel activity at sea. The devices broadcast a vessel’s location, speed, direction and other identifying information, providing key details that, when analyzed, can demonstrate when a vessel is fishing and infer what type of fishing it is engaged in.

Oceana has called AIS is “an inexpensive, easy-to-implement technology that should be required on more U.S. fishing vessels.

“The United States should require similar transparency of seafood imports,” the environmental organization said in a statement. “Expanding transparency will help bring to light suspicious behaviors, protect our ocean habitats and wildlife, and discourage illicit activity like illegal fishing and human rights abuses.”

Oceana’s analysis found that only 12% of the more than 19,000 commercial fishing vessels registered in the U.S. fleet are required to carry AIS devices. The United States requires fishing vessels 65 feet or longer to carry AIS devices and transmit signals within 12 nautical miles from the coast. In contrast, the European Union requires all fishing vessels over 15 meters (49 feet) to continually broadcast their AIS signals for their entire trip.

While the length requirement differs by only 16 feet, expanding the requirement in the United States would increase AIS usage by 65%, according to the environmental organization, and would cover an additional 1,500-plus fishing vessels.

The European Union, United Kingdom, Liberia and smaller fishing nations like Mauritius also require smaller fishing vessels — compared to U.S. requirements — to carry and transmit AIS devices. Indonesia requires all vessels, both domestic and foreign flagged, to use AIS devices in that nation’s waters.

“If we’re serious about stopping illegally caught seafood from entering the United States, we need to know more about the seafood we import, and to do that, we need to expand transparency of fishing,” Oceana’s deputy vice president for the United States, Beth Lowell, said. “Expanding domestic rules will allow the United States to make vessel transparency a requirement for seafood imports and enhance our tools to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.”

Because up to 85% of the fish consumed in the U.S. is imported, Oceana has claimed that expanding the domestic requirements is “necessary” to hold imported seafood to higher standards.

“When vessels are required to transmit tracking data, the public and fisheries managers can keep a better eye on what is happening at sea,” the organization said. “This allows officials to more effectively focus their enforcement and inspection actions on higher-risk vessels like those that disable their tracking systems or appear to be fishing in closed areas.”

According to a report by the International Trade Commission, the United States imported an estimated $2.4 billion worth of seafood derived from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in 2019 alone. Requiring fishing vessels to continuously broadcast AIS would theoretically result in more transparency in vessel behavior and could be used to validate information reported on the origin of the catch. The only problem with that argument is that vessel operators and/or crew could find a way to disable or cloak their onboard AIS devices in order to cover their tracks, such as Russian vessels have allegedly been doing to curtain sanctions since the war in Ukraine began.

To be clear, this column isn’t advocating for or against the increased use of AIS on commercial fishing vessels – it’s simply meant to present information to the fishing community regarding the topic, so the community won’t be taken by surprise if/when additional AIS requirements are imposed at the state or federal level.

Thanks for reading.

Managing Editor Mark Nero can be reached at