Passenger Ship Spots Illegal Fishing Activity

It’s not everyday you get to see large-scale illegal fishing in progress.  But on April 14, that’s exactly what passengers aboard the National Geographic Explorer seem to have witnessed.

This passenger ship was two-thirds of the way through a voyage up the coast of West Africa, and guests were enjoying a day at sea. As luck would have it, they had just spent the morning hearing about illegal fishing from a representative of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a Lindblad-National Geographic grantee.

As they passed through the waters of Guinea-Bissau on their way to Senegal, passengers and crew were faced with an unusual sight.  What had appeared as a large ship in the distance was revealed to be two vessels – a Panamanian cargo ship and a Russian fishing trawler – in the midst of a “transshipment at sea.”

Transshipment refers to a normal process of moving goods from one vessel to another, and when this process happens at sea, it can save time and money but it can also be used to hide/launder illegally caught fish and other illicit commodities like drugs and arms. For this reason, many countries, including Senegal – rich in fish but poor in monitoring and enforcement capabilities – have banned transshipments at sea and insist that any fish caught in their waters be off-loaded at ports where it is much easier to see how much and what type of fish the boat intends to sell.

The government of Guinea-Bissau says these two ships engaged in an illegal transfer in their waters
The government of Guinea-Bissau says these two ships engaged in an illegal transfer in their waters (names blacked out). Experts say such transfers can be used to facilitate pirate fishing. Photo by Richard White, Naturalist, Lindblad Expeditions

Naturalist Richard White first spotted the two ships while he was taking photographs from the bridge of the NG Explorer, and asked the representative from EJF to have a look. The ship’s captain subsequently realized that one of the vessels had switched off its tracking system, effectively rendering it invisible to its distant flag state authorities.  This fact contributed to the suspicion that the vessels may have been trying to avoid Senegalese law by carrying out the illegal transshipment in neighboring Guinea-Bissau, where they had a lower risk of detection.

Working through its London-based team, EJF was able to obtain official confirmation from Guinea-Bissau that the transshipment was not authorized.  The organization then notified the flag states of both ships, Panama and the Russian Federation, who are responsible for sanctioning the vessels’ activities at sea, to determine if the ships were also in violation of the laws of their respective countries.

This sighting by the NG Explorer has the potential to be quite meaningful, particularly for Panama, which was recently named by both the United States and the European Union as a state whose vessels engage in illegal fishing.  EJF has previously reported that most cargo vessels they have documented facilitating illegal fishing in West Africa are flagged to Panama.

The government of Guinea-Bissau says these two ships engaged in an illegal transfer in their waters. Experts say such transfers can be used to facilitate pirate fishing.
Another view of the ships as seen from the National Geographic Explorer (names blacked out). Photo by Richard White, Naturalist, Lindblad Expeditions

Panama, through their Directorate General of Inspection, Surveillance, and Control, has already begun formal proceedings against the operators of the Panamanian ship. These proceedings are similar to a court case where parties must be formally notified, and evidence submitted, in order to assess liabilities and determine what sanction, if any, may be appropriate.  It appears that the Panamanian authorities began these proceedings of their own accord, following the evidence obtained by the Explorer and submitted by EJF. Panama’s proactive response can be seen as a positive reaction to the criticisms by the US and the EU, and is a public test of that country’s publicly announced resolve to take measures to curb illegal fishing.

Although a first for a passenger ship, the kind of evidence collected by the Explorer is frequently collected by local artisanal fishermen in West Africa – with training and basic equipment from EJF – and has led to fines on illegal fishing vessels, as well as confiscation of illegal fish in Europe. More importantly, where these programs are most active, countries are seeing a decline in the number of illegal vessels in their waters.  With continued support, these efforts will reduce illegal fishing in West Africa, sustaining local livelihoods and communities, as well as the marine environment.

For further information on transshipments and illegal fishing, visit Chatham House’s Illegal Fishing website or read EJF’s transshipment report which contains specific references to transshipment and illegal fishing in West Africa. 

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Valerie Craig is Deputy to the Chief Scientist and Vice President of Operating Programs for National Geographic Society. She has strategic and operational oversight for the series of flagship programs and projects that are helping to achieve the Society's ambitious targets to deliver on the vision. She previously worked on ocean and freshwater issues for National Geographic's Impact Initiatives and Explorer Programs and oversaw the Lindblad-National Geographic Fund. Prior to joining NGS in May 2011, Valerie led TRAFFIC North America’s marine fisheries trade work, focusing on issues of legality and traceability in the seafood supply chain. Valerie earned a Master's of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and has a Bachelor’s in International Relations.