Using technology to hook fishing cheats worldwide

Technology could help nations process the vast amounts of data involved in monitoring their waters, but cooperation is necessary to utilize the findings

By Thin Lei Win  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, ROME

Tue, May 15, 2018 - Page 9

In 2016, a Thai-flagged fishing vessel was detained in the Seychelles on suspicion that it had been fishing illegally in the Indian Ocean, one of the world’s richest fishing grounds.

The Jin Shyang Yih 668 was caught with help from technology deployed by FISH-i Africa, a grouping of eight east African nations, including Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya.

However, as the vessel headed to Thailand, which pledged to investigate and prosecute the case, it turned off its tracking equipment and disappeared. Its whereabouts remain unknown.

Such activity is rampant in the fishing industry, experts say, where illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is estimated to cost US$23.5 billion a year.

However, a range of non-profit and for-profit organizations that are developing technological solutions to tackle IUU say it is a matter of time before vessels can no longer vanish.

“The industry is developing very fast... Basically the oceans will be fully traceable. There is no place to hide,” said Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, cofounder of Madrid-based FishSpektrum, one of the few for-profit platforms.

EAGLE-EYED

With backing from Google, Microsoft’s Paul Allen and Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, among others, such platforms also track fishing on the high seas and in marine reserves, aided by radio and satellite data that send vessels’ locations and movements.

They use satellite imagery, drones, algorithms and the ability to process vast amounts of data, as well as old-fashioned sleuthing and analysis, to help nations control their waters.

Algorithms could identify illegal behavior, including predicting when a fishing vessel is about to meet its quota, triggering an alarm, Mielgo Bregazzi tsaid.

Technology could help even rich nations, which might otherwise struggle to process the volume of data broadcast by hundreds of thousands of vessels, said Bradley Soule, chief fisheries analyst at the non-profit OceanMind.

Organizations such as his crunch that data and help to differentiate between normal and suspicious activity.

“The bulk of the threat is non-compliance by mainly legal operators who skirt the rules when they think no one’s looking,” said Soule, who helps Costa Rica monitor its waters.

Others go further. Trygg Mat Tracking (TMT), a Norway-based non-profit, digs up data on a vessel’s identity, its owners, agents and which company provides the crew. Its approach saw a South Korean ship in 2013 pay a then-record US$1 million fine.

KNOWN UNKNOWNS

Decades of over-exploitation mean fishing grounds are under strain. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2016 said that nearly a third of commercial stocks were being fished at unsustainable levels.

Dirk Zeller, who heads the Sea Around Us — Indian Ocean project at the University of Western Australia, said that as the ocean’s bounty is a public resource, the world should know who is taking what.

Part of the problem is overcapacity in the global fishing fleet, he said

However, he also pointed to difficulties in calculating IUU’s scale: The FAO’s estimates of fish stocks, for instance, are based on official government data, which are open to under and over-reporting.

His research shows that global catches from 1950 to 2010 were 50 percent higher than countries had said.

All of which goes some way to explaining why the true extent of IUU remains unknown, experts say.

The best IUU study came out in 2009, said Miren Gutierrez, research associate at London-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

That study, which experts rate as the most reliable, came up with the US$23.5 billion figure.

In a bid to update that, the FAO is developing guidelines to help nations estimate IUU fishing in their waters. It is also working with non-profit Global Fishing Watch (GFW) — which runs a free-to-access platform that uses automatic identification system data to track the global movement of vessels — on a report scheduled for July to estimate how much fishing is taking place.

GFW chief executive Tony Long, a British navy veteran, said transparency would drive better behavior, as “those people who choose not to be compliant stand out more.”

NO SILVER BULLET

However, there is still much to do: To date, governments and multilaterals have “failed to produce a single, effective, public global fisheries information tool,” an ODI report on technology platforms said.

Report coauthor Alfonso Daniels said a database of vessels known to be involved in IUU fishing would help.

TMT has tried to fill this gap. It last month launched a Web site with up-to-date details of nearly 300 vessels accused by nine regional fisheries management organizations of being involved in IUU fishing.

However, that is a drop in the ocean. The FAO estimates that 4.6 million fishing vessels are out there, the ODI report said, yet its database listed just 5 percent of them as of 2015.

The FAO is looking to improve on that. It last year launched an online database of vessels that, although currently open only to member states, is to be publicly accessible later this year.

However, for all the promise technology brings, it cannot provide a complete picture, TMT chief analyst Duncan Copeland said.

“You need a combination of other information sources, like working with neighboring countries,” he added.

FAO senior fishery officer Matthew Camilleri agreed that technology is no silver bullet.

“What use is it if you’re able to detect IUU fishing and find the vessel with illegal fish on board, but you do not have the process in place to enforce, to prosecute?” he said.

Progress is under way toward that in the form of the FAO’s 2009 Port State Measures Agreement, which is aimed at curbing IUU fishing. Nearly half of the 194 UN member states have signed it, including four of the top five fishing nations — Indonesia, the US, Russia and Japan.

China has not. It is the world’s largest fishing nation, whose 2014 catch of 13.4 million tonnes was as much as the next three nations combined, the FAO’s 2016 State of the World’s Fisheries report showed.

When asked whether it was likely to sign, China’s mission to the FAO in Rome told reporters that it was not authorized to comment.

Long said combining technology with cooperation between nations could close the loopholes.

“We are in a very imperfect situation, so the more countries that ratify tools like the Port State Measures Agreement and mandate the use of tracking systems ... and go transparent, the better,” he said.