Big Brother on the High Seas: Using Satellite Technology Against Pirate Fishermen

by Carolyn Sotka

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Image from Greenpeace.

Seafood consumers and distributors have come a long way in the United States to better understand the origins of seafood that lands on our plate. Labeling of farmed vs. wild-caught and import vs. domestic has helped direct seafood purchasing from both a wholesale and individual perspective. There is an increased awareness about locally caught product vs. those with more food miles; whether seafood was sustainably harvested; safety and health issues; and secondary impacts of fishing and gear on the environment and other non-targeted species.

Yet, despite these strides, the majority of the seafood that America eats is imported. In most cases, that fish is not held to the same level of scrutiny, sustainability and traceability required in the U.S. It’s estimated that $23.5 billion worth of fish enter the world market each year from illegal fishing – perhaps 1 in 5 fish caught in the wild. In some regions, as much as 40 percent of the catch is thought to be illegal.

Detection and enforcement of illegal fishing on the high seas has been an unsolvable problem for decades due to the sheer and vast expanse of the open ocean. It’s more often the case that a seafood product will cross many borders before it reaches your supermarket – caught in one country, processed in another, combined with other products and distributed yet again, from another country.

A few weeks ago, Pew Charitable Trusts launched groundbreaking technology with partner Satellite Applications Catapult to help authorities monitor, detect, and respond to illicit fishing activity across the world’s oceans. The technology merges satellite tracking and imagery data with other sources of information, such as fishing vessel databases and oceanographic data. It’s an amazing, encouraging and even intimidating use of technology – George Orwell meets the global Coast Guard.

The development of ‘Project Eyes on the Seas’ will launch initially with a “Virtual Watch Room” to monitor the waters surrounding Easter Island, a Chilean territory, and the Pacific island nation of Palau. Pew and its partners are working with each nation and island community to establish large, fully protected marine reserves in these waters.

GOL IUU Satellite graphic

These efforts join Oceana, SkyTruth, and Google partner program Global Fishing Watch and other groups to use the availability of satellite data to track hundreds of thousands of fishing vessels.

Check out this NPR podcast, ‘Gotcha: Satellites Help Strip Seafood Pirates Of Their Booty’ to hear about how  SkyTruth uses an Automatic Identification System (AIS) intended to prevent ship collisions at sea, to zoom in on hot spots of illegal fishing and discern what the vessels are doing, based on movement pattern and speed of their tracks.

SKyTruth

SkyTruth followed the ship Shin Jyi Chyuu 33 during one week last month. The group says the ship’s irregular track and variations in speed, as seen on a map, are indicative of fishing. Courtesy of SkyTruth via Exact Earth ShipView.

 

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