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Fighting Illegal Fishers with Satellite Intelligence

September 1, 2014

This is an exciting time for marine law enforcement. A number of NGOs and research groups are now working on ways to monitor fishing vessels via satellite data. Where previously this was just a pipe dream for environmentalists, we’re now starting to see real movement.

World Wildlife Fund was arguably one of the first movers with its construction and analysis of open-source AIS data, and I blogged on this two years ago. Meanwhile, it seems that the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Campaign to End Illegal Fishing has moved into the clear position of leadership since then. There is a very excellent article on this over at Grist. Here are the highlights:

1. Pew has teamed up with Oxford group, Satellite Application Catapult, to create a big database of identifying information on fishing vessels with satellite trackers (mostly large fishing vessels).

By combining satellite-gathered signals from ship transponders with other data, whether crowdsourced or supplied by fishing enforcement agencies, Catapult can piece together a cheat sheet that identifies any vessel by name history, ID number, and the details of its fishing license.

Once the relevant authorities have access to that information, they will be able to spot illegal or unreported fishing in even the most remote areas, then zoom in to make the arrest. That big Ukranian ship hanging out in the marine protected area? Probably not a tourist.

2. This comes on the heals of a smaller, successful collaboration between Pew and a Virginia based group called Sky Truth.

Last year, the group partnered with a small but spunky nonprofit located in West Virginia, SkyTruth, to use open-source satellite data to detect and document illegal fishing around Easter Island, a smidge of an island in a tuna-rich corner of the South Pacific, about 2,000 miles off the Chilean coast…

Without reliable IDs, the SkyTruth team instead tried to narrow in on the likely suspects by using low-res radar imagery to detect the presence of a ship, and sometimes even its speed and direction, then cross-referencing that with the transponder signal (or lack thereof). The boats that did not identify themselves and could not otherwise be accounted for, SkyTruth surmised, were probably up to no good.

After a year of watching Easter Island, SkyTruth had enough data to estimate the total amount of fishing that was going on, and had singled out more than 40 unidentified vessels that had been unknown to Chilean maritime authorities.

3. We still lack the necessary incentives for most fishing vessels to submit to satellite monitoring technologies.

If retail chains demand traceability from their suppliers, and can promise them a premium price at the counter, then it’s in fishermen’s best interest to opt into a monitoring system. Instead of putting the onus on enforcement agencies, this is a way to shift the burden of proof to the fishermen who want to do business legitimately. Then, if the good guys keep their transponders on, it will be even easier to spot shady behavior from afar. (You get a better ocean! You get a better ocean! Everybody gets a better ocean!)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2014 4:06 pm

    It’s an exciting time but also a tricky time.. until AIS becomes mandatory on fishing vessels as it is for shipping vessels, satellite tracking as a tool for enforcement will always have limitations. Also a reason to be careful in how work in this area is publicly communicated maybe… don’t want the bad guys catching on to if/when/how they’re being watched 😉 – unless… it actually stops them from doing bad things!

    • September 2, 2014 4:24 pm

      Good point. I’m fascinated by this question of making AIS mandatory. Of course we can sanction a vessel for not having AIS or VMS on board…but then…how do we make sure it gets used? Do we need different rules, technologies, or both? I’d love to look into one day how the mandatory use of black boxes developed among the aviation industry.

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