Combatting the multi-billion Dollar illegal fishing industry

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By Stuart Martin, CEO, Satellite Applications Catapult

IUU-Virtual-Watch-Room-blogBuying fish from a supermarket or fishmonger is something many of us take for granted. But where does our fish come from, and how was it caught? Can you trace its origin and guarantee it was trawled legally, in accordance with sustainable fishing standards set out by the likes of the Marine Stewardship Council.

With the global illegal fishing industry estimated to cost the global economy as much as $23.5bn annually, according to the Global Ocean Commission, a consolidated, technology-driven solution is required to combat the growing threat of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

It’s with this in mind that the Catapult is working in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts to develop a near real-time satellite monitoring system which will help authorities monitor, detect and respond to illegal fishing activity across the world’s oceans.

Underpinned by pioneering satellite technology and applications, new measures are being implemented that will enable authorities to react significantly faster than previously, as a result of bringing together all the vital elements of an otherwise manual system.

Using satellite technology to underpin consolidated global effort

The high number of illegal catches – approximately 20 per cent of fish caught in the wild – persists largely because industrial-scale pirate fishermen know that their activities go mostly unnoticed and unchecked. Pew’s ‘Project Eyes on the Seas’ aims to solve that problem, offering authorities a near real-time, comprehensive monitoring and analysis system of activity on the water for the first time.

Until now, fisheries officials worldwide have adopted various methods to try and detect illegal fishing, providing an expensive, inconsistent and inefficient approach to fighting IUU. However, the new ‘Virtual Watch Room’ system – part of Pew’s long-term strategy to dramatically reducing IUU fishing – is designed to create into a global solution for identifying and tracking illegal fishing vessels worldwide. It will combine multiple data sources including Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) and Optical Satellite Sensors.

Cutting-edge technology will merge satellite tracking and imagery data with other sources of information, such as fishing vessel databases and oceanographic data. Additionally, information sharing will be crucial as authorities identify vessels operating illegally, build a comprehensive case against them, track them into port or within reach of enforcement vessels, and take appropriate action against them. All this should lead to easier and more cost-effective enforcement. As the software is scalable, it can be used from a Virtual Watch Room right down to an individual sitting at the end of a port in a developing nation.

The Virtual Watch Room will initially cover the waters surrounding Easter Island, a Chilean special 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.

Analysing satellite data and integrating it with maritime records

Multiple sources of live satellite tracking data will be taken, before analysing it and linking it to information about a ship’s ownership, history and country of registration, providing a dossier of up-to-the-minute data that can alert officials to suspicious vessel movements.

It is hoped that the Virtual Watch Room will generate immediate dividends in remote ocean areas where governments are considering establishing marine reserves to safeguard some of the planet’s last remaining near-pristine marine habitats. Palau is one such place, where it is hoped the Virtual Watch Room’s enhanced features will help secure the soon-to-be established Palau National Marine Sanctuary – the first such sanctuary in the world.

This is all about space technology delivering benefit to real people in the real world right now. Ultimately, the platform could be used more widely for people requiring a better knowledge of what’s going on in the oceans, including new insurance modelling, and new ways of modelling traffic flows in and out of maritime ports.

Subject to its success, the system’s capability and scope will be extended to more countries, regional fisheries management organisations, and seafood retail groups, in an effort to ensure that only legally caught seafood is trawled and sold.