Satellite, cellular technology starting to catch up to IUU scofflaws

Technological advancements in satellite and cellular technology are being brought to bear in the international fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, enabling greater levels of surveillance and policing in the vast – and previously mostly lawless – open ocean.

An article in Business Insider details the story of how the tiny island nation of Kiribati successfully used satellite data and analysis provided by Global Fishing Watch, a partnership between Google, Oceana and SkyTruth, to catch a commercial fishing vessel fishing illegally in a no-catch zone. Central Pacific Fishing Company, the owner of the vessel, Marshalls 203, was fined USD 2 million (EUR 1.8 million) as a result of the investigation.

Global Fishing Watch has also been profiled in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Scientific American and a host of other prominent newspapers and magazines, and hailed by some conservationists as the world’s best hope for ending IUU fishing. The effort has been backed by a USD 6 million (EUR 5.4 million) donation from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, analyzes Automatic Identification Signals (AIS) extracted from Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), which are mandatory equipment on large-scale commercial fishing vessels, to identify a ship’s movement and activity. Fishing vessels seeking to avoid detection are still able to turn off their AIS, but as The New York Times reported, that doesn’t always help them. Global Fishing Watch has produced a video explaining how its system works and how it is fighting IUU globally.

Another group that is pushing the envelope when it comes to using tracking technology onboard fishing vessels is Pelagic Data Systems. The company, based in San Francisco, California, has developed a cellular vessel tracking system specifically designed for small-scale fisheries and small-boats, which compose as much as 95 percent of the world’s fishing fleet.

The smaller, solar-powered units that Pelagic Data Systems has designed are much cheaper than an AIS system, and have been successfully implemented on a variety of vessel sizes and types. The units record a geolocation every few seconds, stores it on the vessel after compressing and encrypting it, and uploads data when it comes into contact with a cellular network, according to PDS chief scientific officer Melissa Garren, who presented as part of the SeafoodSource webinar "Small vessels, big data: Silicon Valley takes up the fight against IUU fishing" on Thursday, 20 October.

“The challenge is to put all vessels on the map using a combination of all different sorts of technology,” Garren said. “Whatever it takes to improve fisheries management, the livelihood of fishermen, and the environmental sustainability of our marine resources.”

Tracking vessels at sea, using cellular or satellite technology, not only aids in the determination of the origin and legality of the catch (by confirming the time and place where fishing occurred and the gear used), but also the effectiveness of management locations (through the tracking of fishing effort by location and over time) and the discouragement of labor infractions (through tracking vessel behavior and vessel-to-vessel interactions), Garren said.

The sharing of data is another important part of the tracking and traceability movement, Garren said. Pelagic Data Systems is working towards that end by contributing data to Global Fishing Watch.

“You’re going to see the integration of data from multiple types of technology becoming ever more present,” Garren said “The more that AIS and VMS data and GPS data like those coming from our systems can be integrated into one platform like [Global Fishing Watch], the more we can get a truly global handle on the problem of IUU fishing and create visibility at sea,” she said.

Going one step further, Garren said that once the data stored in the Global Fishing Watch system is more robust, it can be combined with other types of information, such as landings data, to improve transparency across multiple issue areas, including the social, ecological and economic realms. Ultimately, Garren said, newly available technologies should be used to treat ocean monitoring “more like global airspace monitoring.”

“If you think about the idea of commercial airplanes flying about from one country to the next with no one knowing where they are, it’s laughable. That would be totally unacceptable in today’s world. And yet, we are perfectly comfortable, on most days, with having that exact same approach on the ocean,” Garren said. “Technology is now available – there’s enough technology available, it’s affordable enough – that we don’t need to have the ocean be a giant black box. We can start to shed light there and we can think of it as a globally shared space.”


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