Unusual ship tracks lead to international collaboration

News · ALEXANDRA (New Zealand) · 5 April 2023 · Updated 12 June 2023

New Zealand based maritime intelligence platform helps uncover potential illegal fishing that stops offload of $7 million USD worth of tuna in Bangkok

Thai authorities have prohibited the landing of more than $7 million USD worth of tuna from the South Korean fish carrier Sun Flower 7. The action was triggered by unusual ship tracks seen in Starboard Maritime Intelligence which prompted further investigation by Francisco Blaha, a leading fisheries adviser. In an international collaboration, Blaha passed his analysis to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and the Thai authorities, when it was clear the Sun Flower 7 was headed to Bangkok.

12 June 2023 update on the investigation On 5 June 2023 it was confirmed that an administrative fine of $150,000 USD had been imposed on Sun Flower 7’s owner by the Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. This fine relates to the vessel’s activities on the high seas and is based on analyses of vessel position data. The investigation is ongoing and Korea have thanked Thailand for their commitment to fighting against illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

EJF continued their information gathering and on 23 April 2023 published an article outlining their investigation which uncovered ten more Korean-flagged or -owned vessels carrying out similar activities. EJF has urged port states to take action.

Starboard and S&P Global Market Intelligence co-hosted a webinar on 7 June 2023 looking at the case and demonstrating how analysis of vessel behaviours and vessel information can support uncovering IUU fishing activity.

Learn more about the Sun Flower 7 case and supporting analysis in this webinar co-hosted by Starboard and S&P Global Market Intelligence.

The track of the Sun Flower 7 looked like it was deploying drifting fish aggregating devices (FADs) in the northern part of Kiribati’s EEZ and the adjacent high seas. Such activity would be in violation of the vessel’s licensing conditions 1. Once the vessel indicated it would arrive in Bangkok, Thailand’s Port State Measures (PSM) regulatory framework kicked in. This allowed investigation by Thai authorities in collaboration with the Kiribati Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources Development. As a consequence, the vessel was denied port use and escorted out of its waters.

The Sun Flower 7 in Bangkok. Courtesy of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

“Francisco found the unusual zig-zagging pattern in November last year and let us know that this could indicate FAD deployment. This is noteworthy behaviour so we have been identifying and flagging these tracks in Starboard,” says Andy Hovey Chief Product Officer, Starboard Maritime Intelligence.

Unusual vessel movements of the Sun Flower 7, during November 2022, in the northern part of Kiribati’s EEZ and the adjacent high seas.

Stopping IUU fishing requires international collaboration. PSM frameworks are a crucial component of this, as they prevent vessels engaged in IUU fishing from using ports to land their catch.

“Since the vessel wasn’t going to offload its cargo to a port in the Pacific, it was initially harder to intervene, but when realising that the vessel was going to Bangkok… I sent all the info I had, and I knew they would pick up on it,” says Blaha.

Tools such as Starboard that provide long track histories, analysis of vessel behaviour, and the capability to share analysis facilitate international collaboration. In this case Blaha, EJF, and Starboard’s staff all used the platform to analyse the same unusual ship tracks.

“I have maintained good relationships in Thailand since working there substantially in 2016 on Port State Measures. This includes a very clever and committed Thai-English colleague working with EJF. I have been communicating with them throughout the whole process, particularly, in terms of providing operational know how to discredit some of the excuses the vessel captain was providing,” says Blaha.

The captain of Sun Flower 7 initially stated that they were retrieving the FADs. However travelling back and forth nearly 300 km extra to do this would not be an efficient use of fuel.

The use of drifting FADs is regulated by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission via conservation and management measures. FADs make fishing more efficient, saving on fuel and other expenses, but they have come under increased scrutiny for the catch of juveniles, bycatch of non-target species, and the potential of masking overexploitation when operating in the high seas. As a result, some ecolabels only grant their certification to tuna catches not associated with drifting FADs, and some large retailers are marketing their tuna as FAD free.

“Providing maritime domain awareness for fisheries monitoring, control, and surveillance has been a focus of Starboard. We are now ingesting fishing authorisations from the 13 regional fisheries management organisations that cover most of the world’s oceans. Importantly, we want to facilitate the sharing of information amongst all fisheries experts; this case is a great example of how the sharing of analysis and expertise has a real impact,” says Hovey.

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More about Francisco Blaha

Francisco is a fisheries biologist with over 30 years of operational fisheries experience in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO). Working initially as a fisher, he has transitioned into a researcher, trainer, compliance and monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) adviser for over 20 international organisations, governments, NGOs, technology providers, and industry groups across 55 countries. He presently supports the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority as their Offshore Fisheries Advisor with funding support from the New Zealand Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Learn more about Francisco.

More about Starboard Maritime Intelligence

Starboard was launched in mid 2021 and the platform is currently in use across the Pacific by pivotal fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) organisations. Starboard supports governments, border security teams, NGOs, and fisheries organisations to navigate the vast amounts of maritime data available from satellite sensors – including around 33 million ship positions every day – and helps users uncover and collaborate when they find high risk activity.

Xerra and Starboard have been established with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). Learn more about Starboard.

More about the Environmental Justice Foundation

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) exists to protect the natural world and defend our basic human right to a secure environment. Learn more about EJF.

EJF has worked in Thailand since 2014 to help achieve a sustainable, legal, and ethical fisheries management system for Thailand. During this time, EJF has worked closely with the Thai Maritime Enforcement Command Centre (Thai-MECC), the Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, the Department of Fisheries, the Marine Department, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the Royal Thai Navy, and the Royal Thai Police. Based on information gathered by EJF, they have produced detailed reports for the Royal Thai Government and directly to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s office. These reports outline recommendations on how to elevate Thailand’s fishing industry further and protect its marine resources.


  1. Deploying FADs is considered fishing under the definition of “fishing” in the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) convention, which is the Regional Fisheries Management Organisation regulating tuna fishing in the Western Central Pacific Ocean, and the Sun Flower 7, as a carrier of transhipped fish is not licensed to support fishing (in the form of deployment of FADs on behalf fishing vessels).