Oceans Inc #5: The Art of Fishing Laundering

It might seem like a sensible logistics exercise, but in reality, transshipment enables destructive IUU fishing across the world.

Welcome to Green Echoes, a newsletter from the Environmental Reporting Collective that highlights key investigative stories, data sources, funding, reporting and training opportunities and our projects from across Asia.

Oceans Inc

This week we are proud to announce the release of the fifth investigation: Transshipment: The Art of Fishing Laundering. It digs into a process central to the expansion of deep sea fishing - transshipment, where catch is transferred at sea to another ship, which takes it to shore.

It’s a controversial practice that’s also often used to enable what the industry calls “IUU fishing” – illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Here’s an exert from this article.

Reminder: All Oceans Inc content is available to be translated, adapted, and republished for free under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC 4.0). If you’re interested, respond to this email.

Looking for resources and opportunities? Scroll down – they’re at the bottom.

Transshipment

In southwestern Vietnam, Tinh, 34, works aboard a fishing boat that goes out to sea for three months at a time.

He and his crew would travel down the South China Sea towards the maritime border between Malaysia and Indonesia, where they would hunt mainly for sardines, red bigeyes, and rosy snappers. 

Once the boat’s storage hold is full, his company will send what is known as a “logistic ship” or “mothership”, a large refrigerated vessel which will bring the catch back to shore, and restock the boat with fuel and supplies – allowing his boat to continue fishing almost indefinitely.

Transshipment is illegal in Malaysia. When we met him, Captain Hamiludin Che Awang of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and his crew aboard the KM Pekan had spent the past few days tracking a few suspect boats. They were ready to commandeer them and arrest those on board. The MMEA regularly sinks the boats of those found guilty of IUU fishing — as a deterrent.

But despite being able to see over 90 boats on the horizon, right outside Malaysia’s maritime border, there’s nothing Capt. Hamiludin can do. 

“Just yesterday, we saw two Vietnamese fishing vessels inside our waters, but as we came close, they made a dash for their territory,” he said to R.AGE journalists working with the Environmental Reporting Collective (ERC) who were witnessing the operation aboard his ship. “I know that as soon as we leave the area, they will re-enter our waters.” 

The stakes on this maritime game of cat-and-mouse are about as high as it gets. In 2019, Malaysian authorities reported losses of RM4.2 billion (US$995 million) to IUU fishing in 2019, much of it facilitated by transshipment. 

It is no surprise, then, that some of these fishing companies pay tontos (informers) to tip them off on the MMEA vessels’ locations, said Capt Hamiludin.

In the same waters but further to the east, Indonesian authorities have also cracked down hard on transshipment, having lost an estimated US$4 billion to IUU fishing in 2020. Indonesia recently began allowing transshipment, but under strict regulation.

In addition to the economic impact, IUU fishing enabled by transshipment has also had an alarming impact on marine ecosystems in the South China Sea. 

ERC journalists across the region collaborated to interview fishers in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. All spoke about an alarming decline in seafood stock due to unregulated fishing. Studies have estimated that the stock could be as low as 5% of what it was in the 1950s.

The problem of transshipment, however, isn’t one to be solved only in the South China Sea.

In July 2020, the Ecuadorian navy spotted a fleet of over 200 Chinese vessels fishing near the Galapagos islands. The incident sparked concerns in the international community about overfishing, especially due to the unique biodiversity around the UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

WWF Ecuador mentioned the Chinese fleet’s use of transshipment as a particular concern, because “they do not return to port… the fishing operation doesn’t stop”

The fleet would eventually grow to over 300 vessels, all Chinese-flagged or Chinese-owned, fishing massive amounts of seafood while skirting the maritime borders of several South American countries.

And just like it was for the Ecuadorian navy, there is little authorities like Capt. Hamiludin can do but watch as these vessels plunder the seas just beyond their reach.

Read the rest of the investigation, focusing on the costs of transshipment and how IUU catch ends up in markets around the world.

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Other Oceans Inc Stories

We’re releasing six different investigative pieces over the next month. Here’s what’s we’ve published so far, and what’s coming up.

  • Fishers on the Frontlines - Fishing communities across the South China Sea are struggling as their countries battle against IUU fishing.

  • Krilling for Oil – Conservationists are sounding the alarm over the international race to exploit the Antarctic's krill swarms.

  • Worked to Death – An investigation into one of China's largest fishing companies.

  • Observational Hazards – A fishery observer's job is to monitor fishing vessels for illegal activity. But they keep disappearing at sea.

  • Releasing on Oct 15Wealthy Seas, Poor Fishers – The vast resources of the West Philippine Sea provide livelihood and food security, yet Filipino fishers who sail at these seas fend for themselves.

Opportunities and Trainings

On Sept 29, Earth Journalism Network is holding a webinar on Reporting on Zoonotic Spillover Ecosystems, featuring speakers from STOP Spillover Project. Sign up here.

Also from EJN: an open call for proposals for Biodiversity Media Grants, focusing on supporting projects that generally focus on training and capacity building (deadline 15 Oct.

Vice Asia is hosting a virtual Creators Summit in October, focused on climate change. Here are two panels I thought would be of interest to journalists.

Reminder: The International Fact-Checking Network is holding their eighth Global Fact summit from October 20-23 and welcome Fact-checkers and journalists to attend. It’s free for general attendance, and you can register here.

And the Spark Grant Initiative seeks to provide funding for work that strengthens science journalism locally while also benefiting the worldwide community, with projects eligible for up to $20,000 in grants. Details here, and applications are due 30 Oct.

That’s all for this week. We’re always open to including other resources/trainings in this newsletter, so if you have something you’d like us to share, let us know by responding to this email.

Stay safe and healthy,

Nithin Coca


The Environmental Reporting Collective is a growing network of journalists and newsrooms from over a dozen countries, all dedicated to investigating environmental crimes collaboratively.

To learn more about our work, check out our website, Investigative.Earth, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.