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The Invisible Threat to Ocean Health & Food Security

by Bubba Cook, Mark Young and Melissa Mahoney


In today’s fisheries, in nearly every ocean and coastal area, evidence of overfishing, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) and forced labor practices all point to an industry on the verge of self-destruction. Unfortunately, fisheries monitoring, control, and surveillance (MCS) efforts - needed for oversight and enforcement of fisheries - have often been unable to keep up with the fishing industry and its ability to operate 'out of sight' across the world's oceans. However, that 'out of sight' dynamic has begun to change thanks to increasingly mature investments in technological advancements now available to MCS professionals and fishery managers.

The final session of the 2020-21 SAFET conference shined a bright light on just how much is being done to address IUU and overfishing in some of the world’s most important fisheries as well as the growing number and types of technology tools available in the MCS toolbox.


SAFET was privileged to have Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen, the Director General of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and one of the most accomplished women leaders in the Pacific tuna fisheries, to provide the keynote address. Dr Tupou-Roosen highlighted the role of FFA and its 17 member states to manage one of the largest and most valuable fisheries that spans 30 million square kilometers and is worth more than USD $1 Billion annually. She described how the pandemic has hit the region particularly hard, shutting down tourism and making fishing revenues more important than ever. Additionally, she noted the recent analysis FFA conducted in 2016 that estimated the economic impact of IUU in the region at a cost of USD $600 Million annually. Dr Tupou-Roosen emphasized how important MCS was to the FFA and its members, to effectively target the perpetrators of IUU, and how “a vessel is just a platform…it’s the persons or companies that run the businesses we need to identify.”


Mark Young, Executive Director of the International Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance (IMCS) Network, provided a brief overview of the IMCS Network, reflecting the growing recognition of the importance of public-private partnerships and cooperation in the fight against IUU fishing and how private organizations can support governmental MCS efforts, particularly in developing countries that possess limited resources. Two important ways the Network facilitates collaboration and cooperation is through their website and the Global Fisheries Enforcement Training Workshop (GFETW), which is the only international conference focused on bringing together MCS practitioners to discuss challenges and issues in the fight against IUU.


The Cutting Edge


SAFET once again convened some of the top experts from around the world to discuss some of the advancements in a variety of technologies used in MCS, including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or “drones”), acoustic monitoring, and satellite monitoring.


Melissa Schiele of Loughborough University UK presented on using water landing UAVs in

Belize and Uganda to conduct scientific surveys as well as detect and monitor IUU activity. Their work is proving out the applicability of UAVs in for aerial surveys, paired with machine learning and artificial intelligence used to identify activity on the water and species of interest. Ms. Schiele noted how drone technology has advanced significantly in the last few years to the point where they are increasingly becoming an important remote sensing tool, especially when used in conjunction with other MCS tools.


Dr Chris Wilcox of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) presented on how acoustic monitoring could be used to not only detect illegal dynamite fishing but could also be used to triangulate and track vessels based on an acoustic signature. Dr. Wilcox also noted the value of open-source software to extract better use from existing data, for instance looking at AIS data in new ways in an effort to predict IUU behaviors.


Richard Holmquist of Hawkeye 360 then took the stage to describe their new technology that uses radio frequency (RF) signals to make “dark vessels,” vessels that do not transmit a location signal, visible. He emphasized how this technology could be used to further expand the MCS toolbox and complement other technologies such as Visual Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) to “shine a light” on those vessels engaged in IUU fishing that attempt to remain invisible.


Austin Brush of the research and analysis firm C4ADS provided a valuable demonstration of how technology could be used to increase transparency and assist MCS practitioners to better identify the true perpetrators of IUU fishing and other illegal activities. He reported on the Triton Fisheries Transparency Panel, which created a database of registered vessels that visualizes the whole network of corporate ownership in an effort to target the “persons of interest” behind an operation. Mr. Brush echoed the theme of Dr. Tupou-Roosen that “vessels don’t commit crimes, people do.” He highlighted how complex and convoluted that beneficial ownership can often be as well as how difficult it is to determine which entities, whether people or organizations, are the true beneficiaries of illegal fishing.


Breaking Out


In the breakout sessions, participants discussed various legal hurdles of MCS, such as what kinds of data are admissible in court. Also there was consensus that more effort needed to be committed to improved data sharing arrangements across platforms regardless of the data collected, noting that collecting data for data’s sake is not a good use of time or resources and that there needs to be defined pathways for data to be used in MCS and management. Automatic Identification Systems, or AIS, which uses satellite tracking technology to visualize geo-positioning and movement of vessels, has significantly improved transparency and greater understanding of IUU behavior. However, because it is an “open” system as opposed to VMS which is “closed”, AIS is subject to greater opportunities for manipulation such as turning on and off, changes in vessel identity, and even manual manipulation of geo-position (called “spoofing”) – so when these human interventions occur, it does subject AIS to “inaccuracies” – so users must be mindful of this limitation.

The key takeaways of the session include:

  • Technology has advanced substantially, especially with respect to remote sensors on satellites, but generally across all technologies with each becoming more powerful, compact, efficient, and effective.

  • Compared to 2 years ago, MCS technology has dramatically increased the overall transparency of what is occurring on the water, providing much greater maritime domain awareness that, in turn, allows for a better understanding of the activities of fishing vessels, fleet dynamics, and risks of illegal fishing.

  • Similar to previous events, there was broad recognition that technology cannot solve problems on its own, but rather facilitates and enhances MCS professional’s abilities by providing “additional MCS tools to the MCS toolbox” that increase the capabilities of compliance officers to effectively detect, deter and work towards eliminating IUU fishing.

  • Unreported or mis-reported catch remains recognized as the most significant gap as one of the “U’s” in “IUU” with technology, especially greater digitization of data capture and sharing, playing an ever-increasing role in addressing this risk.

  • Among digital data capture tools, there is increasing global recognition that electronic monitoring represents one of the most effective tools for both MCS as well as science.

  • There is growing awareness and understanding of the important role that cooperation and collaboration play in establishing effective MCS programs, such as that employed by the Pacific Islands FFA. This includes the important role of public-private partnerships, which vastly improve or facilitate greater access of technology and technological platforms to support MCS, especially those in developing countries with limited resources and capabilities.


We thank all the presenters and those who contributed to the rich dialogue. We also wish to highlight the technology spotlight sessions. Many thanks to reps from WildAid, Integrated Monitoring, Woods Hole Group, Xerra, and SubSeaSail. As always, it was great to have these tech providers contributing to the event by providing not only great visuals and overviews of their products and services, but also stimulating some great discussion!


While the SAFET Webinar sessions have concluded for the year, we will continue to use the

In today’s fisheries, in nearly every ocean and coastal area, evidence of overfishing, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and forced labor practices all point to an industry on the verge of self-destruction. Unfortunately, fisheries monitoring, control, and surveillance (MCS) efforts - needed for oversight and enforcement of fisheries - have often been unable to keep up with the fishing industry and its ability to operate 'out of sight' across the world's oceans. However, that 'out of sight' dynamic has begun to change thanks to increasingly mature investments in technological advancements now available to MCS professionals and fishery managers. anagers. nagers. agers. gers. ers. rs. s. .