WATCHING THE WATERS

This technology could mean the end of our global overfishing crisis

The beginning of the end to the sea-pocalypse?
The beginning of the end to the sea-pocalypse?
Image: AP Photo/US Coast Guard
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In the manmade sea-life apocalypse (paywall) that may soon be upon us, illegal fishing is a major culprit—responsible for one in five fish being plucked from our oceans each year. That’s possible because there are more than 120,000 vessels in the ocean at any given time, and these ships plunder the territorial waters of poor countries and remote corners of the sea, where no one is watching them. Because this $23.5 billion worth of fish is unrecorded, it pushes marine populations closer to collapse than governments realize.

A new system might finally give governments—and consumers—the upper hand in fighting back against the booming black-market fish trade.

Known as Project Eyes on the Seas, the technology platform layers a rich tapestry of live-tracking data to help authorities survey, detect, and challenge illegal fishing operations everywhere. Pew is developing the project in partnership with Satellite Applications Catapult, a British company established through a UK government initiative.

Non-fishing vessels in blue; fishing vessels in magenta; transshipment vessels in red.
Non-fishing vessels in blue; fishing vessels in magenta; transshipment vessels in red.
Image: Screenshot from Pew Charitable Trusts/Catapult

The difference between Project Eyes on the Seas and other platforms—notably, Google’s Global Fishing Watch—is that its various sources of data will make its reports robust enough that enforcement officials can take action against illegal fishing boats, says Tony Long, Pew’s director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project. That includes proprietary government data, making it “as close to a military system as you can get without being military,” he says.

That sounds ambitious, but it’s starting out small: Today, the project launched its Virtual Watch Room, which monitors the seas surrounding Chile’s Easter Island and Palau, a Pacific island nation that is about to ban commercial fishing in its territorial waters. Pew’s Long says he hopes that other countries will participate as the system ramps up.

The pilot project stage alerts enforcement officials to suspicious activity—such as non-fishing vessels that are behaving like fishing vessels. Like the Google platform, Virtual Watch Room identifies ship type based on Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), a kind of oceanic GPS that prevents ships from colliding. Using AIS, the system differentiates between non-fishing vessels (blue) and fishing vessels (magenta):

Vessels in UK waters.
Vessels in UK waters.
Image: Screenshot from Pew Charitable Trusts/Catapult

But sometimes vessels that aren’t supposed to be fishing are. If, say, a cargo ship slows to five knots or less, it triggers an alert.

A non-fishing vessel in Palau’s waters slows to less than five knots.
A non-fishing vessel in Palau’s waters slows to less than five knots.
Image: Screenshot from Pew Charitable Trusts/Catapult

Or if a fishing vessel does something sneaky with its AIS—turning it off its AIS, for instance—the system alerts authorities. Virtual Watch Room also monitors movements of refrigerated transshipment vessels—known as “reefers,” these are essentially black market fish-laundering facilities—to track what looks to be a transfer of fish in areas where fishing is banned:

This reefer’s quick reversal of course suggests it just made an exchange.
This reefer’s quick reversal of course suggests it just made an exchange.
Image: Screenshot from Pew Charitable Trusts/Catapult

These and other tools should not only make it easier for officials to act quickly; it should also give them actionable information with which to enforce their laws, says Pew’s Long. This is potentially critical for Palau. Only a two-day trip from Southeast Asia, the country has seen an “extreme increase in [illegal] fishing activities in our waters” in the last few years, says KB Sakuma, an adviser to Palau’s president.

Governments aren’t the only ones that might make use of Project Eyes on the Sea; so might retailers. The UK grocer Metro, which handles more than €1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) of fish each year is partnering with the project to help customers know where and how their fish were caught, says Metro’s Jürgen Matern.