Plastic pollution | Opinion

Data-driven technology that catches more than fish

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Going to be harder to hide

The fight against illegal fishing is the latest to recruit smart monitoring technology

The oceans are busy places. On any given day, some 200,000 commercial vessels take to the world’s seas – tankers, ferries, cargo ships and others.

They all broadcast identification and location signals via the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which the International Maritime Organisation requires to be fitted to medium and large ships that undertake international voyages.

The AIS system is designed primarily for safety – so ships can avoid collisions or their locations can be pinned down in case of accident. However, approximately 30,000-40,000 of the vessels broadcasting daily are commercial fishing vessels. And a new use has now been found for the AIS data they provide: monitoring fishing boats to ensure that they are fishing legally.

Global monitoring

A partnership between NGO Oceana, nonprofit environmental mapping service SkyTruth and Google is developing the Global Fishing Watch public platform to show the location of fishing vessels.

AIS data can be checked to ensure that fishing ships do not enter marine protected areas and other places where fishing is banned or restricted, and to identify patterns of behaviour that can sort out the vessels that stick to the rules from those that flout them.

The data will be used to progressively improve knowledge about, and the analysis of, illegal fishing. No one fully knows the scale of the problem, but everyone is sure it is seriously compromising ocean sustainability.

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated that illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing represents 40% of the catch in some fisheries. Jackie Savitz, who leads the Global Fishing Watch project for Oceana, says that 20-30% of the fish sold in the US could come from illegal sources.

Public watchdogs

Global Fishing Watch, which should go live in 2016, is, however, still a work in progress and faces a number of difficulties. Vessels can turn off their AIS transmitters – though that in itself is suspicious, Savitz says. Buyers could, of course, in turn insist that their fish comes from vessels that have their transmitters operational at all times and being transparent where they are fishing.

Complicating matters, though, some countries use alternative vessel monitoring systems for fishing boats and do not necessarily make the data public. While the algorithms for the detection of fishing behaviour are being refined, there are many technical complications.

But, despite these teething problems, the system has the potential to be a rich source of information to improve the enforcement of rules on illegal fishing. For example, the United Nations Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU (PSMA) requires signatories to tighten up controls to prevent illegal catches from being landed. Global Fishing Watch potentially offers PSMA countries a tool to identify suspect vessels and improve their enforcement procedures.

Data mapping revolution

More broadly, Global Fishing Watch is one example of a broader move that is underway to use data and mapping to tackle a range of environmental wrongs, including deforestation, illegal waste dumping and oil spills.

Another fishing initiative is the Pew Charitable Trust’s Eyes on the Seas project, which combines satellite data, fishing vessel and other information to help authorities monitor fishing activity. And Global Forest Watch uses a range of data to spot illegal logging or other activities that damage forest resources. Such big data applications are part of a push for “radical supply chain transparency”, says John Amos, president of SkyTruth.

Public platforms such as Global Fishing Watch in principle enable almost anyone to act as a watchdog and to spot anomalies. As well as keeping up the pressure on companies to behave correctly, this can mean pressure on governments, which often pass environmental laws but do little to enforce them. As Amos puts it, targeted use of data is a “tool for enlisting the global public to start asking hard questions of government and industry”.

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