AIS Problems Revealed in East China Sea

Ship Radar ECDIS Console
Photo credit: Shutterstock/High Voltage

By Laura Kovary (Environmental Maritime Services) –  Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) are causing problems for mariners transiting waters where there are high concentrations of fishing vessels, particularly in the East China Sea. The issue is not the fault of the AIS but the inappropriate use of the technology. Local fisherman discovered that by putting AIS transponders on their fishing nets, large ships would change course for the nets, thinking they were vessels. Fishermen have even been so bold as to contact the ships on the VHF radio and tell the bridge watch team what course they should steer in order to avoid the fishing nets.

Captain Mike Jessner, a Captain for American President Lines, is working to shed light on this issue and to solicit international support in order to change the status quo and outlaw the use of vessel units on fishing nets. Captain Jessner has seen first-hand how these AIS buoys overload the ship’s equipment. On a recent transit between Shanghai, China and Busan, Korea, Captain Jessner photographed the ship’s ECDIS with hundreds of targets on the screen from broad on the port bow to broad on the starboard bow. It appeared that traffic was clear off the starboard beam and out further on the starboard bow; however, when he changed course, hundreds of AIS targets appeared on his new course line. The equipment identifies these as vessels and it is only able to track a couple of hundred at a time. When there are hundreds in use on fishing nets, the ECDIS cannot distinguish which are vessels and which are nets, so they all appear as vessels. As the ship changes course, the ECDIS drops the targets that it no longer sees as dangerous allowing for acquisition of other targets on the new track, which are not visible before the change of course.

In an article from June of this year, posted on a blog by Sailing Vessel CRYSTAL BLUES, it is mentioned that this has been an ongoing issue in the coastal waters off Cape Hatteras. The blog states that AIS was created as a safety system for vessels to identify ships to each other. This, in turn, allows for better communication and clarification of meeting and passing information. AIS was never intended as a tracking device for unmanned craft, buoys, or fishing nets.

There are limitations with equipment which precipitate this issue; however, the major concern is with the lack of international laws to prohibit the use of AIS transponders. The IMO needs to take a stand on this issue and prohibit the use of AIS on anything other than a vessel. One solution could be designating AIS symbols for vessels and others for fishing nets, buoys, and other gear such as long lines, hydrographic survey or dredge equipment. This would allow the prudent mariner to differentiate between ships and other floating gear allowing for a reasonable assessment of a close quarters situation.

As quoted from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Frequently Asked Questions website, “Commercial self-propelled fishing vessels of 65 feet or more in length are subject to AIS carriage requirements…fishing industry vessels (i.e. fishing processors, tenders, and vessels as defined in 46 U.S.C. 2101) may use lower-cost AIS Class B units in lieu of Class A devices.” It is clearly stated that although “there are no outright prohibitions to use AIS…as a marker…it is not permissible to do so with equipment intended for use on vessels, (i.e. AIS Class A or B devices), for lifesaving (i.e. AIS SART, MOB AIS, EPIRB AIS), or with devices that are not FCC certified and licensed.” Therefore, at least in U.S. Waters, the use of these devices on anything other than the vessel itself, is prohibited

The IMO has acknowledged the use of radar enhanced Aids to Navigation by assigning symbols to these Aids (IMO Annex MSC.1/Circ.1473). To date, there is no symbol assigned to commercially or privately launched or anchored buoys or equipment. There is a growing need for oversight for the utilization of AIS on floating gear. The IMO is the logical entity to step up and regulate the use, and stop the misuse, of AIS equipment. It would be wise to also engage The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the World Trade Organization because of their work with fishing, and fisheries, worldwide.

In a 2018 paper by The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, (The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture; Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, page 157), AIS is referenced as an emerging Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in fishing and aquaculture. Stating that ICT can “facilitate safety at sea, spatial planning, co-management and social networking” they recognize how technology is changing commercial fishing on all levels, without full knowledge of the repercussions this may bring. The paper also refers to “Electronic beacons, optionally combined with automatic identification systems (AIS) or vessel monitoring systems (VMS)…as safety devices” and as providing information on vessel location. Although they are not sanctioning the use of AIS transponders for nets, there is a lack of discussion of the dangers of utilizing more than one transponder per operation.

ABALOBI, an information-management system and mobile application, utilizes Global Positioning System (GPS) to help monitor and control fishing through VMS (on larger vessels), as well as smaller tracking devices such as SPOT trackers. This app, although introduced for sustainability and tracking through the supply chain, also has a tab regarding safety at sea. This would be another avenue to educate the fishing industry on the dangers of AIS transponders on anything other than vessels.

If we are to see more unmanned ships in the future, this needs to be rectified. What would an unmanned ship approaching a literal “sea” of AIS targets do without a professional mariner in charge to properly assess the situation? Ships would be changing course to avoid fishing nets, only to be “faced” with a whole new set of AIS targets on the new course. Shipowners may find their unmanned vessels turning circles in order to avoid what the automated equipment deems to be dangerous, but may only be crab pots or fishing buoys.

The shipping industry needs to be aware of the risks and advocate for regulations to stem this current tide of attaching AIS transponders to anything that floats. Until there are regulations, and other options available for the tracking of fishing nets and buoys, this unsafe practice will continue.

Laura Kovary holds an Unlimited Tonnage Master’s License and sailed onboard tankers, freighters, container, and passenger ships. She is currently an Instructor for UCLA Extension, CSULB’s Center for International Trade and Transportation, and the Maritime & Environmental Training Trust. Her company, Environmental Maritime Services, provides training and consulting on environmental, safety, compliance, port security, and auditing services including ISO and TMSA audits