New tool aims to hook illegal fishing by raising alarm for insurers

Global maritime insurers are signing up to a scheme that aims to deter illegal fishing by alerting providers to signs their clients might be engaged in the damaging practice.

Vessel Viewer, announced at a marine underwriters’ conference last week in Chicago, is one of the fruits of the Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance established at the United Nations’ 2019 climate action summit. Financial industry companies committed under the alliance to action to combat environmental threats.

Insurers can face prosecution if they provide cover to vessels that fish in waters where they lack permission to do so, exceed set quotas for catches or are guilty of other clandestine acts. Insurers believe that vessels that engage in such activities also pose a greater risk of fraud and other misconduct.

Karen Sack, executive director of the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance, a coalition of financial companies, governments and civil society groups that supported Vessel Viewer’s development, said 18 insurers had so far expressed interest in participating in a pilot scheme to use Vessel Viewer to assess the risks posed by clients’ fishing vessels.

“The information on illegal fishing, like any other illegal activity, is complex and difficult to find and there’s a huge lack of transparency round it and links to drug-running, people-smuggling and gun-running,” Sack said. “If insurers are associated with illegal fishing activity, they could be liable for the costs that could be incurred.”

Illegal fishing has been associated with significant damage to stocks of some fish types as well as the impoverishment of communities that depend on the activity in some poor countries, such as Somalia. Many lack the resources to prevent incursions by highly efficient foreign boats.

Craft listed on official blacklists are flagged as red on the system. Other, less conclusive signs — such as regular changes to a vessel’s name or flag of registration or participation in ship-to-ship transfers of catches at sea — are used to assess whether insurers should be given a yellow warning about a craft’s suitability.

Marius Schønberg, head of loss protection at Norway-based Gard, one of the largest maritime insurers, said the new product offered better data to undertake risk assessments of potential new clients or the continued suitability of existing clients.

“There are trades that we don’t want to go into,” Schønberg said. “The intention in joining this pilot is to explore the data that we can get from it and marry it up with existing data that we have on illegal fishing.”

Hydor, another Norwegian insurer participating in Vessel Viewer, in March this year stopped its cover for three vessels known as the Israr fleet after representations from campaigners led to their being blacklisted for illegal fishing of tuna in the Atlantic.

Any failure to secure insurance will make it far harder and riskier for shipowners to continue operating fleets suspected of involvement in illegal activities.

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