How Satellite Technology Is Helping End Illegal Fishing in Our Oceans

EarthzineOcean Stewardship 2016, OpEd

Satellite tracking technology aids analysts to prevent illegal fishing.

By Tony Long
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Apprehending criminal fishers often requires identifying where they are, where they have been, and where they are going. The challenge is seemingly insurmountable given the sheer size of seas. The good news is that technological advancements are shifting the balance toward those fighting to end illegal fishing.
Illegal Fishing Hurts People—and the Environment
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a global threat that robs legitimate fishers and governments of revenue, undermines scientific assessments of fisheries, threatens the stability of coastal communities that rely on fish for food and jobs, and destroys marine ecosystems. The crime accounts for up to $23.5 billion (U.S.) worth of seafood annually, totaling up to 26 million tons—or one in five wild-caught fish taken from our seas. So it’s no surprise that ending IUU fishing has become a key focus for the international maritime community.
The Pew Charitable Trusts believes many pieces must fall into place to effectively end IUU fishing worldwide. Measures include requiring that all large fishing vessels are uniquely identified with International Maritime Organization numbers(1); mandating the tracking of vessels in order to drive transparency and accountability; recruiting the seafood industry and retail customers to demand that the fish they buy and sell is caught legally; and facilitating the adoption and implementation of the Port State Measures Agreement. Pew also wants to encourage capable leadership by governments throughout the world to draft change through initiatives such as Interpol’s highly successful Project Scale, which helps countries build their capacity to enforce fisheries laws and securely exchange information on transnational criminal cases.
Breakthrough technology is now available to help achieve crime-fighting objectives.

At the Satellite Applications Catapult “watch room”, analysts track data to help prevent illegal fishing. Image Credit: Satellite Applications Catapult Limited 2016

At the Satellite Applications Catapult “watch room”, analysts track data to help prevent illegal fishing. Image Credit: Satellite Applications Catapult Limited 2016

Satellite Monitoring Provides Advantage in Ending Illegal Fishing
To find suspected illegal fishers, national authorities have long relied on conventional maritime patrols, which are costly, inefficient, often dangerous, and largely ineffective. After Pew and our partners weighed options for a better way to end illegal fishing, we turned to the skies.
In January 2015, Pew teamed with Satellite Applications Catapult to launch Eyes on the Seas, a state-of-the-art technology platform that cross-references satellite tracking data with details about a boat’s history, licenses, ownership, and more, reducing to mere seconds the analytical work that can take a human days to complete.
Eyes on the Seas goes well beyond simply using satellites to track vessel movement.
Each user, such as a government agency or fishery management body, can tailor the system. For example, users can specify which area of the ocean to monitor and whether to include vessel data from all boats or only certain ones.
The platform recognizes the telltale patterns of fishing and generates alerts, in near-real time, when suspicious activity is detected, such as vessels fishing inside a marine reserve or a known illegal operator fishing in an area where it is banned.
Using Eyes on the Seas, analysts can quickly move reliable information on suspected illegal activity to port officials and maritime enforcement authorities, who in turn can act to stop a crime in progress or prepare to confront the suspects when they come into port to offload fish.
Illegal fishers often steal from the waters of resource-poor countries. Eyes on the Seas was therefore designed as a cost-effective tool for any country seeking to end illegal fishing in its waters. 
While no system is foolproof, Eyes on the Seas was designed specifically to lower the risk that it could be fooled by fraudulent data. For one, the system determines vessel location via a global tracking method called the automatic identification system (AIS), which transmits a boat’s position, identity and speed to other ships, and has been used primarily to avoid collisions.
AIS is effective when used properly but can easily be turned off or manipulated to emit false data. Eyes on the Seas can get around this problem by overlaying data from multiple sources, such as vessel monitoring systems—through which fishing vessels transmit location and other data to governments and other monitoring bodies—as well as satellite imagery like synthetic aperture radar, which can detect the presence of vessels at any point in time, regardless of weather conditions.
When all of this information is cross-referenced with national licenses, fishing vessel databases, and oceanographic and historical data, the ability to detect potential illegal fishing operations goes far beyond what is possible with conventional monitoring systems.
Where Will Eyes on the Seas Look Next?
The past year has been filled with a number of exploratory opportunities for Eyes on the Seas, in piloting the project and determining the platform’s many capabilities, different areas of work, and who might benefit the most from this technology. Throughout the coming year, we aim to make Eyes on the Seas services available to countries and regions where IUU fishing is prevalent and marine conservation is a top priority.
Pilot trials of this technology were recently completed by the British government and the Polynesian Leaders Group of Islands in the Pacific (2). Surveillance went seemingly undetected in both circumstances—a huge advantage in remote monitoring of vessel activity.
As more countries, fishery management bodies, and seafood retailers commit to using the technology to monitor fishing activity, Pew and our partners hope to learn how to expand the scope and capabilities of Eyes on the Seas. We view the retail seafood industry as a key link in the supply chain: Companies can use the system to show that their product was harvested legally, thus gaining a market advantage. In fact, we feel that wide adoption of this technology among seafood firms will help unite government and industry on ending illegal fishing.
Equally important is finding ways to increase the exchange of fisheries enforcement information among authorities. Eyes on the Seas will be most effective when governing bodies share the intelligence gathered by the system to boost cross-border monitoring and enforcement.
No existing technology is the perfect remedy. But wide adoption of Eyes on the Seas as part of a comprehensive effort against maritime crime will eventually leave illegal fishers with nowhere to hide.
Tony Long is director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

  1. The International Maritime Organization number is a permanent number assigned to ships for identification purposes. It comprises the three letters “IMO” followed by a unique seven-digit number. It would remain unchanged upon transfer of the ship to other flag(s) and would be inserted in the ship’s certificates.
  2. The Polynesian Leaders Group is an international governmental cooperation group that brings together eight independent or self-governing countries or territories in Polynesia, working to develop, promote, and protect common interests and objectives of the members and the region.