China-made Automatic Identification System transponders (extreme left)

The Indian Coast Guard pressed the panic button recently after they intercepted radio signals from mysterious 'Chinese' vessels in Indian waters.

The vessels moved up and down in different places in Kerala, near Coalchel fishing harbour in Tamil Nadu and in Lakshadweep.

A thorough combing operation followed, but the Coast Guard could not locate even a single Chinese boat. But they could unravel the mystery when they located Indian fishing boats fitted with China-made Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders, which have been sending out signals with AIS country code of China.

AIS is an automated tracking system that displays other vessels in the vicinity. The system helps track vessels and avoid mid-sea collisions. If a vessel is equipped with AIS, its movements will be shown on the screens of other AIS-fitted vessels in the surrounding area. The Coast Guard too uses AIS to track vessel movements in the Indian waters.

How It Works

The AIS transponders send out high frequency signals that contain a nine-digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) code. The first three digits of this code indicate country of origin of the AIS transponders. AIS code for India is 419. China has two different codes - 412 and 413.

Government of India made AIS transponders mandatory for all fishing vessels that are more than 20 metres long after the Mumbai terror attack of November 26, 2008.

A high-quality AIS would cost anywhere between Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 in the Indian market. But China-made systems are available for just Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000. Second-hand AIS will be much more cheaper and are available for just Rs 2,000.

Boat owners, who buy the used AIS from unauthorised dealers, are unaware of the nitty-gritty of the transponder and the signals they send out. Only the manufacturer and authorised dealers could change the system's country code. This means Indian fishermen continue to use the system with the Chinese country code.

It is not just boats, many fishermen fit China-made AIS on their nets.

Fishermen say the AIS plays a big role in avoiding mid-sea collision of ships and fishing boats.

Many incidents of ship-fishing vessel collision have been reported from Kerala coast in recent times. In August 2018, three fishermen were killed and two others were injured when a cargo ship collided with a fishing vessel 24 nautical miles off the coast of Munambam, near Kochi.

Government Issues Notice

Meanwhile, the Kerala government has decided to act tough on boats fitted with China-made AIS as it hampers national security. "These devices threaten national security. The department will take action against boats fitted with such devices," said the fisheries department.