Uncovering Illegal Fishing’s Missing Link

With South Africa on the frontlines of the illegal fishing crisis, here's how Skylight's platform is helping authorities identify transshipments

It’s late August and TORNG TAY NO.1 has just requested entry to the South African port of Durban. For Africa’s second-biggest port, this is one of numerous standard port entry procedures they must review that day. But, there’s more to this seemingly innocuous fishing vessel than meets the eye, and its request raises flags.

As a partner to South Africa’s Fisheries Law Enforcement Agencies, Stop Illegal Fishing (SIF) helps the country tackle its illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. It’s a global issue that has serious economic, human rights and food security implications. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), IUU fishing is responsible each year for the loss of 11–26 million tons of fish worth an estimated $10–23 billion. In Africa alone, one in four fish may be caught illegally threatening the sustainability of fish stocks and pushing the health of our ocean to the brink.

While the TORNG TAY NO.1 waits off South Africa’s northeast coast, authorities there call for SIF’s help to look into the fishing vessel’s activities. SIF’s team of specialists are looking for any suspicious vessel behavior that might indicate illegal or unreported fishing. The independent and not-for-profit organization needs to be both efficient and effective because erroneous searches are a costly use of limited resources for the entire port.

Skylight’s advanced machine learning algorithm flagged TORNG TAY NO.1’s dark rendezvous event as seen above.

Equipped with the latest technology including Skylight, a real-time maritime tracking and transparency tool, SIF is alerted to a Dark Rendezvous leading up to TORNG TAY NO.1’s request for entry into the port. Skylight’s Dark Rendezvous events are where two vessels may have met on the open ocean but only one is publicly transmitting its information through the Automatic Identification System or AIS. It’s a sign of potential transshipping at sea and while most cases are legal, this practice can hide IUU fishing practices and mask human rights abuses. With millions of data points and a spaghetti bowl of vessel tracks across our ocean, Skylight’s advanced machine learning algorithm uncovered something that would’ve been nearly impossible for SIF to see before.

When SIF’s team of analysts take a closer look at TORNG TAY NO.1’s history, they find the fishing vessel was loitering for almost four hours, plenty of time for the ship to transport fish to or from another vessel. Armed with this information, the South African authorities targeted the ship for port inspection, something they can do only selectively given the volume of vessels entering. What they uncover is a fishing vessel that underreported to the government the amount of fish on board. Instead of slipping under the radar by reporting false numbers like so many vessels have, TORNG TAY NO.1 isn’t getting away with illegally underreporting catch this time.

The fishing vessel was fined R50,000 by South African authorities. If the country catches the TORNG TAY NO.1 illegally fishing in its waters again, the vessel will then be fined a further R500,000 (about $30,000 USD). It’s a drop in the bucket in the country’s efforts to combat IUU fishing, but it’s the action that matters. As a longtime champion of marine conservation, South Africa is taking the steps needed to safeguard its waters and stop illegally caught fish from entering its markets in the first place. With the country on the frontlines, SIF and Skylight are helping authorities uncover transshipments — one of the major missing links fueling the illegal fishing crisis.