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Global Ocean Commission seeks to tighten high seas security loophole

All vessels on the high seas should carry identification numbers and be trackable using satellite or other technology, says the Global Ocean Commission (GOC), an independent high-level initiative on the future of the ocean.

Commissioners Obiageli Ezekwesili (left) and Cristina Narbona at the meeting in New York

Currently, passenger ships and large merchant vessels have to carry unique and unchangeable International Maritime Organisation (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,” Figueres added.

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 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.”

Mandatory vessel ID and tracking would also benefit human rights and sustainable fishing, observed 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.”

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 unregistered (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 5th-6th July.

The IMO has a well-established system for numbering vessels. In the same way that cars might have a number etched into the engine block that cannot be removed except by obvious tampering, IMO numbers are unique and unchangeable. If a vessel changes owners or flags, the number stays with it. In many countries, port authorities regularly inspect vessels’ numbers and, if they suspect unauthorised changes have been made, can prevent the vessel sailing or even impound it.

Under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, which came into force in 1996, IMO numbers are mandatory for passenger ships above 100 gross tons and merchant ships above 300 gross tons. Other types of vessel are exempt, including pleasure yachts, wooden ships, fishing vessels, warships and a few specialist categories such as hydrofoils. However, many of these vessels will have an IMO number as well, either because it is mandated by the home government or as good practice (such as, improving safety at sea).

The IMO is currently reviewing the exemptions and may make a decision at its annual session this November. However, this would result in a voluntary numbering system, not a mandatory one.

Vessels use a number of electronic systems for identification and communication. Among the most common is the Automatic Identification System (AIS). This is a short-distance (tens of km) system working on VHF radio. Vessels broadcast short bursts of information including IMO number, position, course and speed. Other information can be carried as well.

Because of the short range, AIS signals are typically detected and used when vessels are near shore or near other vessels. However, satellites in near-Earth orbit can also detect AIS signals, which give global coverage. At least 20 governments invest in buying satellite AIS information for a range of purposes including search and rescue, fisheries management, collision avoidance and maritime security. There are estimated to be a few hundred thousand vessels on the global ocean fitted with AIS. In the wake of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India mandated their use on all fishing vessels over 20m long. Other countries such as China are mandating tracking and identification systems in their national waters.

IMO regulations mandate AIS systems on all passenger vessels and on merchant ships above 300 gross tons. These vessels are also required to use Long-Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) systems, which principally use satellites for two-way transmission of information.

Another system in operation for fishing vessels in some jurisdictions is VMS – Vessel Monitoring Systems. The technical details vary from country to country but the intention is to provide governments with a record of which vessels are fishing at what times in which places, so that regulations can be enforced. VMS systems are mandated by some governments in their waters, and by some Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) on the high seas.

Port authorities, especially in busy shipping areas, typically use Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) to regulate traffic and avoid collisions. These collate information from a variety of sources including radar, AIS and CCTV.

There are websites and smartphone apps that, drawing on professional and amateur AIS detectors, show the positions of vessels close to port in real time. In 2004, the IMO argued that the free publication of this data ‘could be detrimental to the safety and security of ships and port authorities’, as it could help facilitate hijacks or other forms of attack.

Many governments retain and safeguard data they receive from AIS, VMS and other monitoring systems, sometimes releasing it after a delay, to prevent unwanted usage.

The Global Ocean Commission is an independent initiative aiming to halt and reverse degradation of the global ocean, and restore it to full ecological health. The Commission will publish its final report and recommendations in the first half of 2014, and feed them into processes and institutions that can generate change.

The Global Ocean Commission originated as an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, in partnership with Somerville College at the University of Oxford, Adessium Foundation and Oceans 5. It is supported by Pew, Adessium Foundation and Oceans 5, but is independent of all. It is hosted by Somerville College.

The Commission launched in February 2013, and held its first formal meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, in March.

There are two African commissioners who are part of the Commission. Obiageli Ezekwesili is a former Vice President of the World Bank for Africa, a former Nigerian Education Minister and co-founder of Transparency International.

Trevor Manuel is the co-chair of the Commission, and was one of South Africa’s longest serving Ministers of Finance. He is now Minister in the Presidency and head of the National Planning Commission.

Other commissioners are: Paul Martin (Canada), John Podesta (USA), Jose Maria Figueres (co-chair, Costa Rica), Luiz Furlan (Brazil), Andres Velasco (Chile), David Miliband (co-chair, Britain), Pascal Lamy (France), Cristina Narbona (Spain), Vladmir Golitsyn (Russia), Ratan Tata (India), Sri Malyant Indrawati (Indonesia), Foua Toloa (Tokelau), Robert Hill (Australia) and Yoriko Kawaguchi (Japan).

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