Iran's 'massive illegal fishing operation' in Indian Ocean exposed

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

Iranian fishermen unload their catch into a refrigerator truck in the southern port city of Chabahar in this file photo from May 14th, 2015. [Atta Kenare/AFP]

Iranian fishermen unload their catch into a refrigerator truck in the southern port city of Chabahar in this file photo from May 14th, 2015. [Atta Kenare/AFP]

Iran has been conducting a massive illegal fishing operation in the Indian Ocean, inside the territorial waters of Yemen and Somalia, which is "likely one of the largest illegal fishing operations occurring in the world", a new report says.

In a June 29th statement summarizing the report's findings, the directors of Global Fishing Watch (GFW) and Trygg Mat Tracking (TMT) said they have been working with partners in the region to identify large-scale illegal fishing.

Working with regional partners, including the Somali government, the two organistions detected nearly 200 Iranian vessels in Yemeni and Somali waters.

Analysis of automatic identification system (AIS) data identified a fleet of predominantly Iranian vessels operating extensively in the Somali and Yemeni exclusive economic zones, they said.

AIS is a collision avoidance system that continuously transmits a vessel's location at sea.

"An increase in visibility of these vessels in 2019 is linked to growing availability of AIS equipment for use on vessels, and drifting buoys that are attached to fishing gear to mark and track them," the statement said.

The GFW and TMT analysis of AIS signals identified 175 individual Iranian vessels that are fishing predominantly in the Northwest Indian Ocean, beyond the Iranian exclusive economic zones, during the 2019-2020 fishing season.

Of these, 112 were observed in Somali waters and 144 in Yemeni waters, with what appears to be behaviour consistent with fishing activity, the statement said. In addition, 93 AIS fishing net tracking buoys also were linked to Iran.

"The analysis indicates that the Iranian fleet operating in the Northwest Indian Ocean consists of at least 192 vessels," the joint statement said.

"While the assessment found the number of Iranian vessels visible on AIS was already high, those figures are likely underestimated," it added.

"Many targets identified in the satellite images do not correspond with an AIS signal, and the fleet appears to include both vessels using an AIS system and vessels without AIS, leading us to believe the actual number may be far higher."

Iran's violations must stop

In a July 6th statement, Yemen's Minister of Fish Wealth Fahd Kafayen said Iranian boats have been fishing illegally in Yemeni waters, in clear violation of international law.

A fleet of Iranian ships "is continually committing violations, tampering with Yemeni marine wealth and roaming our waters", he said.

He also accused Iran of using fishing vessels to smuggle weapons to the Houthis (Ansarallah) in Yemen.

Kafayen called on the UN Security Council and international community to punish Iran fo its transgressions and to impose measures that force it to stop tampering with Yemen's fish wealth and smuggling weapons to the Houthis.

Yemen Information Minister Muammar al-Eryani also condemned the hostile and illegal activities carried out by Iranian ships in Yemeni territorial waters.

These include depleting fish stock, firing on Yemeni fishing boats and fishermen, and using ships as a camouflage and cover for smuggling weapons, ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the Houthis, al-Eryani said.

"Iranian vessels recently penetrated Yemen's territorial waters in groups in the south-western regions of the Socotra archipelago and the Arabian Sea," he said.

He called on the UN Security Council to condemn these hostile acts and pressure the Iranian regime to desist, as they violate Yemen's sovereignty and security.

"It is unfortunate that Yemen's territorial waters and Somali waters are being violated by Iranian vessels at a time when Yemen and Somalia need their natural resources," said Studies and Economic Media Centre chairman Mustafa Nasr.

"Unfortunately, the current situation in Yemen has allowed many parties to tamper with its wealth due to its preoccupation with the conflict," he told Al-Mashareq.

The Arab coalition exercises significant control over Yemeni territorial waters to monitor the arms embargo on Yemen, he said, noting that this charges it "with the responsibility of curbing this tampering by various means".

Illegal fishing, arms smuggling

The deployment of such a large number of Iranian ships in Yemen's territorial waters is one of the biggest obstacles Yemeni fishermen face, economist Abdul Aziz Thabet told Al-Mashareq.

They restrict their movement, prevent them from fishing and deplete fish wealth, impede fish farming and ignore laws that permit fishing certain species of fish to the exclusion of others based on the season, he said.

This illegal fishing comes at a time when Yemenis are suffering from food shortages, after five years of war, "and the UN is appealing to the world to donate to Yemen to finance relief efforts", he noted.

Iranian ships in Yemeni territorial waters are committing "two crimes" simultaneously: illegal fishing and smuggling arms to the Houthis, political analyst Faisal Ahmed told Al-Mashareq.

The Iranian ships "took advantage of the weakness of the Yemeni coast guard and the government's preoccupation with the conflict" to intrude on Yemen's territorial waters, he said.

Ahmed called on the Arab coalition to support Yemeni coast guard forces to enable them to perform their duties.

He also called on the Security Council to pass resolutions "that force Iran to stop its hostile activities against regional countries, including extending the arms embargo to curtail its capabilities and those of its allies", he said.

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