A Google Earth image of a fishing weir along the Persian Gulf coast.
We are slowly beginning to see attempts at testing new technologies to assess illegal fishing. Point in fact is the “Short Communication” article published by the ICES Journal of Marine Science just a couple weeks ago: “Managing Fisheries from Space: Google Earth improves estimates of distant fish catches.”
This article was both very good and, well, frustratingly mum on how wildly inaccurate its predictions could well be. Sure, it’s not an official article, but rather a short communication…but I would have thought there would be some tighter screening.
So let’s start with what was good: proof of concept.
All in all, the article shows that aerial photos can be used to estimate the catches of coastal fisheries. How so? The assessment methodology relies on Google Earth, a visual count of fishing traps, and some best educated guesswork to determine how many fish would be caught by a special type of fish trap – a weir – in the Persian Gulf each year. Call it a sort of fisheries spectrometer in beta version. Here I quote:
We surveyed the coast of all Gulf countries (inward of the Strait of Hormuz) three times and marked each weir with the Google marker tool…and solved for the total (seen and unseen) weirs…We then raised the total number of weirs corrected for poor resolution by the percentages of missing imagery.
To estimate total annual catch, we combined the number of estimated weirs with daily catch rates and ﬁshing season lengths (and the conﬁdence intervals associated with all these parameters) in a Monte Carlo procedure (Uhler, 1980) for each country and for the entire region.
Pretty cool, right? In my view, this tech and our ability to remotely estimate actual fishing effort and catches will only expand as Google Earth gets more imagery from aircraft and more powerful satellites at its suppliers’ disposal. Of course, that assumes we also continue to improve associated methods to estimate catch rates and seasons in data poor fisheries. And this gets me to my second point…
What this article gets wrong is how little it discusses its catch estimation methods, and how it established confidence intervals around the estimates that resulted.
For example, consider how the catch rates were estimated:
The mean catch rates used to calculate total catch were 62.2 kg d-1 (n=3; s.d.=32.4 kg) for Kuwait (A. Al-Baz, Kuwait Institute for Scientiﬁc Research, pers. comm.) and 42.6 kg kg d-1 for Bahrain (A. H. AlRadhi, Directorate of Fisheries Resources, pers. comm.).
And now consider how the seasons, species composition ratios, and regional rates were estimated:
Estimates for ﬁshing season lengths and species composition ratios were also obtained from the same sources, as well as for the UAE (S. A. Hartmann, Environmental Agency – Abu Dhabi, pers. comm.), while regional averages were applied for countries without these data (Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar).
Frankly, I don’t even know what a lot of this means. Catch estimates from a personal communication, and one estimate was based on the sampling of just three fishing weirs? And these two personal communications formed the basis for estimates for the other three countries that were assessed? I can’t believe at this moment that these numbers approached anything more than a wild guess. I mean…this is the Persian Gulf we’re talking about.
Ultimately, I wonder if maybe this article wasn’t meant to elicit some ideas or collaboration to better refine the concept. Or was this the UBC Fisheries Centre upholding its reputation of occasionally playing too fast with the numbers? (Or in a more real politik view, was someone else about to beat the author to the proof-of-concept finish line?)
I’m going to assume the former and humbly offer my own thoughts here.
First, I think we need to be far more open about the data limitations of each analysis. Until we have developed complementary catch, composition, and season length assessment methodologies for data poor fisheries, we just can’t be throwing around so many numbers as come later in the article. I mean, really, was the following not just a slight overstep?
Species composition varies between Gulf countries. Kuwait’s catch is dominated by mackerel (Scombridae; 30%), bream (Sparidae; 19%) and morraja (Gerreidae; 15%), while Bahrain’s catch is dominated by rabbitﬁsh (Siganidae; 26%), swimming crab (Portunidae; 26%), and sardines (Clupeidae; 15%). Over 96% of the UAE’s catch is reported as snapper (Lutjanidae). The regional average species composition is dominated by Siganidae (22%), Portunidae (22%) and Clupeidae (13%).
Second, why not develop a methodology where you rapidly assess these parameters. For example, field surveys of the fishermen of the fishermen could be conducted. UAVs could be used to evaluate if fishing effort is uniformly distributed across a fishing area (as the article assumed), or if it follows some predictable pattern to take advantage of variable fish distributions. You could also work with a national fisheries agency to get authorization from the fisheries ministry to deploy some experimental traps to estimate these variables. Anyway, food for thought.
So in closing, I’m quite excited by this demo’ing of the technology. I believe it shows some tremendous potential for helping us one day truly manage the majority of the world’s fisheries for sustainability. I hope we can now find the tools to help it fulfil its promise. On the opportunity for this more expansive management, the authors and I absolutely agree:
[O]ur results speak to the potential for satellite imagery and remote sensing to expose illegal ﬁshing practices. In the same way that industrial ﬁsheries rely on technology to target catches (i.e. Fishﬁnders, GPS Chartplotters etc.), technological advances in satellite imagery can be used to monitor ﬁsheries remotely, particularly in areas that were once considered too remote or expensive to enforce. In the case of Qatar, our methods revealed 17 operating weirs (14 visible directly and 3 added to compensate for poor resolution and imagery availability), despite their ban in 1994 (M.S. Al-Muhindi, Ministry of Fisheries, pers. comm.). Beyond other large semi-permanent structures, such as ﬁsh ponds in Hawaii and Japan, vywers in South Africa, or sakkar in the UAE, satellite imagery can be used to expose other illegal marine practices, such as verifying the magnitude of oil spills (Amos, 2013), assessing the use of illegal ﬁshing gears, and monitoring activities in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), among others. This is particularly useful for improving data collection in countries with known data inaccuracies, or in developing countries where resources allocated toward conservation and/or management are scarce.
As I slowly return to the blogging game after a few months of putting together PhD applications, taking the GRE, and engaging in roughly 75% travel, I find some truly refreshing news in the world of natural resource crime. The European Union, after having warned a number of fishing nations for bad behavior, is now moving forward with formal trade sanctions against three bad apples.
The countries now at clear risk for losing access to EU markets for their fisheries products are: Belize, Cambodia, and Guinea. As World Fishing reports:
The EC has now proposed to the Council of Ministers to adopt trade measures against the three countries in order to tackle the commercial benefits stemming from these illegal activities. Ultimately, fisheries products caught by vessels from these countries will be banned from being imported into the EU.
This development is made more interesting when we consider that these countries had, apparently, entered into cooperative engagements with the European Commission to act in good faith and to take corrective action. The same happened with other countries to much better result. Again, World Fishing News:
Fiji, Panama, Sri Lanka, Togo and Vanuatu also received formal warnings last year, but they have all made credible progress in close cooperation with the EC. They have set in motion new legislation and improved their monitoring, control and inspection systems and, as a result, dialogue with these countries has been extended until the end of February 2014, with progress to be evaluated next spring.
The EU is the 2nd largest market for seafood in the world (after China and before Japan and the U.S.). This proposal, if enacted into law, would be a major blow to fishing companies in these countries and surely a source of international embarrassment for their leaders.
The truth is that the global epidemic of illegal fishing is unlikely to be resolved until we improve our understanding of it. And there appears to be no better way to do this than through the evaluation of the problem through the theoretical lens, body of literature, and issue experts that comprise the field of criminology.
At its most basic, the field of criminology offers four ways to greatly improve our understanding of illegal fishing.
1. Criminology offers us more realistic expectations.
The evaluation of illegal fishing as one of a universe of crimes can be quite helpful in that it might provide us with a realistic set of expectations for how we will ‘solve’ the problem.
Illegal fishing is one type of ‘green’ crime that includes with it poaching, illegal dumping, and a host of other prohibited actions that harm the environment. And this green crime is part of a much larger set of legally prohibited actions that cause harm to society, everything ranging from copyright infringement and securities fraud to rape and murder. Consideration of these ‘Law and Order’ type crimes suggests that 1) we will never put an end to illegal fishing and 2) significant amounts of illegal fishing will likely continue barring any revolution in fisheries enforcement.
In spite of the grave social problems caused by what are known as “Part 1” crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, etc), these crimes still continue and a great many go unsolved. For example, in 2007, 1.2 million violent crimes were committed in the United States, and only 44.5% resulted in an arrest. It is generally held that arrest rates are even lower for crimes that require specialized knowledge, such as securities fraud, and I would suggest green crime like illegal fishing would similarly require a great deal of specialized knowledge that most law enforcement agents lack.
Many crimes also go unreported, so the true arrest rates are in fact quite lower than official statistics. For example, just 40% of reported rapes result in an arrest, but victimization surveys suggest that most rapes go unreported. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, the number of rapes reported by respondents is more than twice the number of rapes reported to the police. While it may be insensitive to compare sexual assault with something like illegal fishing, it should merit a brief consideration of how these two crimes are similar with respect to reporting. In the former, the victims typically have a disincentive to reporting the crime, while in the latter, the victim – the natural environment – is unable to report the crime. Both are therefore likely to be significantly under-reported and less frequently ‘solved’.
Given these figures, I’d suggest that a good starting estimate is that less than 1/3 of illegal fishing activities is ever reported to the authorities. And if we assume this type of ‘property crime’ is similar to other types of property crime, we might assume that a similar official arrest rate of 16.5% could be applied. This means that if we assume illegal fishing is like other types of crime, we might only ever reach an arrest rate of 5% or less for all illegal fishing.
2. Criminology suggests that education and trust are of utmost importance.
The low likelihood of stopping illegal fishing (given current technologies) suggests that education and trust-building activities are going to be key to ensuring global fisheries sustainability. The reason is that crimes can be conceptually divided into two types.
The first type is comprised of crimes that are mala in se, or inherently bad, and as such there exist strong informal social norms that mutually reinforce formal law to disincentivize potential perpetrators. Mala in se crimes include such actions as murder, rape, and incest.
The second type is comprised of crimes that are malum in prohibitum, or bad according to the law. These are crimes such as speeding or failing to register a rental unit with the municipal government. In Washington DC, at least, these crimes are common and wouldn’t typically suggest that you are a bad person if you commit them.
The moral difference between these two categories means that malum in prohibitum crimes are committed far more regularly and with less moral difficulty than mala in se crimes.
Now which category do you think illegal fishing would fall into? To facilitate this thought experiment, imagine that you are a poorly fishermen with a small boat and all of a sudden government scientists are telling you cannot fish half the year because local fish populations are overfished. You are unsure of how the scientists arrived at this conclusion, but you are absolutely certain that you have a family to feed. Would you morally struggle with the decision to fish during a closed season? I’d suggest that you would not.
Thus, it is likely that illegal fishing is viewed as malum in prohibitum by most fishers. To change this, it will fall to governments, NGOs, and enlightened industry members to educate fishers as to the moral dimensions of overfishing and improve trust relations between fishers and scientists so that the science is viewed as credible.
3. Criminology offers us research methods to conduct most structured and context-specific analysis of fisheries.
A quick review of existing illegal fishing literature reveals that analysis of the problem is mostly limited to a handful of studies that examine illegal fishers’ motivations in the abstract. They identify that fisher noncompliance is a function of diverse economic and normative factors. Yet the reality is that such factors combine with diverse fishery contexts to generate highly complex and idiosyncratic motivations to break fishery rules. Because of this, careful fishery and sub-fishery analysis is required to understand and address the drivers of illegal fishing.
And where are our research methods to come from? Criminology. The field has decades of experience studying the diverse motivations for such crimes as theft, drug trafficking, and even genocide. There’s no reason we can’t adapt existing research methods to fit the needs of fisheries managers, marine conservationists, and the fishing industry.
4. Criminology offers us possible solutions to the illegal fishing epidemic.
Finally, the field of criminology offers us a number of possible solutions to greatly reduce illegal fishing around the world. Technological solutions such as police intelligence analysis, integrated CCTV monitoring, and cell phone apps, and social solutions such as community policing and police-community engagement could go a long way to changing the ‘game’ for legal and illegal fishers alike. And thankfully, there is a considerable number of studies how these solutions can best be implemented and evaluated.
I’ve had an excellent three days here in Atlanta at the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium. I’ve met many brilliant thinkers and inspiring people that have succeeded in changing their lives for better health and happiness. I also had the pleasure to present this year on the intersection of seafood nutrition and sustainability. The presentation was called “Fishy Business: How to Eat Healthy and Sustainable in the Modern Seafood Economy.” And as promised to those in the audience, I provide here a link to download the full powerpoint.
I’ll also be sure to load the video of my presentation once it is made available by the Ancestral Health Society in the coming months.
Please feel free to send along any questions.
There’s a great new report out from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) on how to ensure success of the EU’s regulation on illegal fishing. As I’ve written before, the EU has rather progressive language to keep illegally-caught fish out of European markets, but it is not yet clear how well that legislation will be implemented. (The U.S., meanwhile, has weaker language and has never been applied in spite of clear evidence of repeat violations by certain states).
EJF’s report comes at a critical time as the EU decides what sort of real, on-the-ground action it will take to keep illegal products out of the country. The report is here. The most interesting takeaways for me are below, and all are accompanied by smart, common-sense reforms in the full report.
1. Patchy catch certification monitoring.
Spain, one of the countries implementing the law most proactively, has provided data showing that 56 out of 124,600 consignments have been rejected since the Regulation came into force in 2010 (0.04 per cent of consignments). This figure is believed to account for over 50 per cent of consignment rejections across the whole of the EU. On the other hand, some Member States are believed not to have investigated or rejected any fish whatsoever since the law came into force, despite significant imports from outside the EU.
2. Exporters of illegally-caught fish are likely sending their products to less-guarded points of entry.
Evidence provided to EJF by Spanish authorities shows a significant decline in the unloading of frozen fisheries products at the port of Las Palmas following the coming into force of the Regulation and the subsequent intensification of inspections. The number of visits by vessels using the port for services other than the unloading of fish has not declined.
3. Increased containerization is a challenge for implementation.
Another area where displacement of IUU fish is of increasing concern is transportation by container. There is anecdotal evidence that fish caught in West Africa is increasingly being transported by container…The Regulation excludes container cargo vessels from the definition of ‘fishing vessel’. Fisheries products transported by containerised cargo ships must be accompanied by a catch certificate, but in practice such ships are not subject to the same requirements as fishing vessels…In addition, a reluctance to open refrigerated containers may contribute to a lower number of physical inspections of conatinerised fisheries products.
4. Lack of attention to evaluating current implementation.
Analysing the quantity of IUU fish entering the EU or the impacts of the IUU Regulation is complicated by a lack of data. There is so far no public information on the number of ‘verifications’ of consignments across all Member States, or rejections of IUU fish.
5. Excellent summary of the regulation in action.
The Belize Fisheries Department has announced a moratorium on unmonitored transshipments of fish at sea for Belize-flagged vessels, effective immediately. This is very interesting and comes on the heels of the nationalization of its vessel registry which I touched on last week.
This advancement is strongly supported by EJF, which has long monitored illegal fishing, and the transshipments that conceal it, off the coast of West Africa. Earlier this year, in fact, EJF called for the banning of all the transshipment of catches in West African waters.
The moratorium will not end all transshipment by Belizean vessels. The Belize Fisheries Department banned transshipments on the high seas for Belize-flagged vessel with the exception of transshipments carried out in the framework of at-sea transhipment programs regulated by a Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO) to which Belize is a party. Belize also banned transshipments at sea in coastal countries’ EEZ, unless the transhipment was explicitly authorized to take place at sea and can be properly monitored.
Why the change? The clear reason is that the European Union is threatening trade sanctions against Belize for its non-action on the illegal fishing conducted by its flagged vessels. Specifically, on 15 November 2012, the EU Commission warned eight third countries, including Belize, that they risked being identified as non-cooperative in the fight against IUU fishing. European Commissioner Maria Damanaki, in charge of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, described this as “a yellow card” to these countries who were urged to improve their legal and control systems as required by international rules.
Here’s a nice quote from Steve Trent, the Executive Director of EJF:
The complications involved in monitoring large-scale transfers of fish at sea, mean that any transhipment of fish from one vessel to another can hide illegal activities. Transhipment enables pirate fishers to launder illegally caught fish in to world markets and avoid detection. EJF welcomes the announcement by the Belize Fisheries Department that they have banned unmonitored transshipments at sea by Belize-flagged vessels; however, we’d like to see them go further and ban all transshipments at sea by their vessels in West Africa. This would show international leadership and is commensurate to the risks of IUU fishing in the region.
At the same time, we are calling for action by all Governments, international organisations and the seafood industry to address IUU fishing and urgently implement the transparency required for global fisheries to be managed effectively and fairly.