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Drones: Keeping a Watchful Eye on Illegal Fishing

Sustainability Politics

GLOBAL - With global economic losses resulting from illegal and unreported fishing estimated to lie between U$10 billion and U$23.5 billion each year, illegal fishing poses a threat to the livelihoods of fishers all over the world.

by Marine biologist
Samantha Andrews thumbnail

Combatting illegal fishing requires many different tools, from those that focus on the underlying causes of illegal fishing, to preventing their products entering the market place. One of the tools for tackling the issue is detecting when illegal fishing actually takes place. Monitoring fishing activity at sea is no easy task, especially when it takes place in the high seas. Nevertheless technological advancements have served to improve detection by providing eyes, even in the hardest to watch locations.

Eyes in orbit– satellites

Introduced as a collision avoidance tool, Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts a vessel’s unique identity, along with data such as location, direction, and speed of travel to other vessels, base stations, and satellites.

Recently AIS have been commandeered for another purpose – finding illegal activity.

Global Fishing Watch, created to show all trackable commercial fishing activity across the globe, is the result of a partnership between non-profit SkyTruth, NGO Oceana, and Google Earth Outreach.

Harnessing AIS data, they are not only able to detect vessel movement and location, but determine when vessels are – and aren’t – fishing. This powerful tool has already proved useful to enforcement.

In 2014 Palau was alerted to, and consequently able to intercept, a Taiwanese fishing vessel operating illegally in their waters. When the Republic of Kiribati completely closed its MPA to fishing in 2015, Global Fishing Watch not only found that compliance was high, but was able to identify the one vessel breaching regulations, resulting in successful prosecution.

It is not unknown for those undertaking illegal fishing activities to switch their AIS off. Given that AIS is considered largely robust, the disappearance of fishing vessels in itself can raise red flags. During the testing stage in 2014, half a million vessels around the world ‘disappeared’. A greater problem occurs where fishers manipulate AIS data. Whilst some manipulations can be detected, complex manipulations are, by their very nature, complex to uncover.

Whilst Global Fishing Watch primarily relies on publically available AIS data, ‘Eyes on the Seas’ is able to utilize private data, arguably allowing them to build a more thorough picture of illegal activity.

Created from a partnership between The Pew Charitable Trusts and Satellite Applications Catapult, a British Government initiative, Eyes of the Seas uses Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), and optical satellite sensors, and drones, as well as oceanographic data and international fishing and marine reserve boundaries – and of course AIS.

The projects ‘Virtual Watch’ system takes all of this information and processes it though specially-designed algorithms, which automatically alert trained analysts of potential illegal behaviour. Unlike Global Fishing Watch, Eyes on the Seas doesn’t provide any publically-available output, sharing the information only with the relevant government enforcement agencies. Eyes on the Seas has also had successes, including information on several vessels suspected as undertaking illegal activity in the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve being passed on to the British government for investigation.

Eyes in the sky - drones

Not all fishing vessels are fully traceable by projects like Eyes on the Seas of Global Fishing Watch, particularly where they do not have tracking devices on board. In-situ detection of potential illegal fishing is needed.

Small, fast, and relatively nimble, unmanned aerial vehicles aren’t just a fraction of the cost of patrol vessels/planes, but have the added advantage being able to take vessels by surprise. The time and distances over which drones can operate vary, as does the equipment they can carry. Simpler drones will only have camera and GPS on board. More sophisticated drones may also carry other devices like infrared cameras.

Drones are now used by the governments of a number of nations including Palau, Belize, Jamaica, and Costa Rica to detect illegal fishing and aid in prosecution. NGOs such as Sea Shepherd, Black Fish, and Earthrace Conservation have also been investing in drone technology to detect, record, and in some cases intercept vessels undertaking illegal activity, or provide enforcement departments with robust information to aid in prosecution.

Drones for detecting illegal fishing aren’t limited to the sky. A submersible drone, powered by solar and wave energy, has been purchased by the British Government to patrol no-fishing zones around the Pitcairn Islands. Requiring very little maintenance, able to remain at sea for months, and previously used by NOAA in hurricanes, the drone is well suited to patrolling such remote areas.

Equipped with a camera, a satellite positioning system, and acoustic sensors, the Wave Glider is able to locate and follow vessels from their engine noise, take images and location data, and transmit it back to the Eyes on the Seas project for further investigation.