By Richard Conniff
On a large monitor in a room in Harwell, England, the planet Earth rotated against a black background. Brightly colored dots bunched up against the shorelines of the continents, with other points scattered across the oceans. It looked like something from the latest James Bond film. In fact, those dots represented the location of nearly every known fishing vessel now at sea, monitored in close to real-time by satellite. The visualization—it’s not quite reality yet—was part of an ambitious new program that its backers believe will be the best tool yet for ending the scourge of pirate fishing.
“Outside of the military, we are not aware of any project that will bring so many layers of information together and bring so many stakeholders together to end illegal fishing,” said Tony Long, director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Project Eyes on the Seas,” he said, will shine “a quicker and brighter spotlight” on illegal fishing. The project, a collaboration between Pew and Satellite Applications Catapult, a company established through a British government initiative, will begin monitoring two Pacific regions on a pilot basis and gradually spread worldwide over the next three to five years.
That may be just in time. A study published last week in Science warned that, with marine fish populations down 38 percent since 1970, our current practices are leading to what the authors called “defaunation”—that is, oceans without animals: “On land, we know of the phenomenon of ‘empty forests,’ ” meaning ecological extinctions of forest species, they wrote. “We are now observing the proliferation of “empty reefs,” “empty estuaries,” and “empty bays.”
Illegal and unreported fishing is one big cause—with as many as one in three seafood meals we put on the dinner table caught illegally—and it is notoriously difficult to control. Many countries have fishing quotas, and areas designated as marine protected areas, at least on paper. But there are not nearly enough enforcement agents to police the oceans, especially around developing nations.
If a given fishing vessel flouts the law in the current enforcement climate, by fishing, for instance, in a marine reserve, it now takes hours at best before anybody knows about it. Far more often, the crime goes undetected. Vessels that have been fishing illegally often meet up with other vessels at sea and transship, or offload, their catch, making it difficult to detect where those fish came from. To address these issues, said Long, the new system combines satellite monitoring with databases on individual vessels, maps of protected areas, and other information. It incorporates algorithms designed to analyze and interpret the movement of ships.
Speeds above a quarter knot and below five knots, for instance, may indicate that a ship is fishing. A slow back-and-forth movement could be the tipoff to long line fishing, which is illegal in some areas because of bycatch and ghost-fishing issues. When two ships come close, a proximity alert can call attention to the likelihood that a transshipment may be occurring. Where a team of human monitors now needs 18 hours to analyze this sort of data, the developers of “Project Eyes on the Sea” say they can deliver the same results in 18 milliseconds.
Unlike a similar initiative by Google, the Pew project uses multiple methods to track ships. That matters, said Long, because ships sometimes turn off the transponders that allow them to be tracked, especially if they’re going into protected areas where fishing isn’t allowed, or if they attempt to transship the fish. The new system is also designed to take pictures from satellites of suspicious ships that have shut off their transponders.
Having this information doesn’t mean that overworked and underfunded enforcement agencies are going to be able to show up and make an arrest eight hours—or even one hour—out at sea. But it could put teeth in the new international “port state measures” agreement, under which coastal nations pledge to keep foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing out of their ports.
“Any official in any port around the world should have access to enough information,” said Long, “that they can make the right decision about a vessel trying to enter that port, and be aware if there is any illegal activity in the history of that vessel … Lots of this data already exists, but it’s not being shared. It’s the power of sharing this data that will make this work.” And these data feeds will be immediately accessible even to the poorest nations.
The project will start out monitoring in just two locations: Around Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific, and the island nation of Palau, in the western Pacific east of the Philippines. Both of these areas are under consideration for protected marine reserves. Long said that over the next three to five years, he hopes to grow the project to cover many more protected areas. Eventually, he said, he envisions a traffic light system, tagging each vessel on a database with the equivalent of a green, yellow, or red light. Port officials would then be able to look up a vessel’s identifying number, check its status on a mobile phone or other device, and know whether to let it enter unhindered, inspect it, or simply turn the ship away.
Meanwhile, much of the burden in the fight against illegal fishing will continue to rest with the United States, which is the world’s leading consumer of illegal seafood. A presidential task force issued recommendations last month for how best to stem the tide of illegal or “black market” seafood flowing into the United States, and both Republicans and Democrats support the task force’s suggestions. Among other recommendations, the task force called for all seafood coming into the U.S. to have tracking information associated with it, so customs agents, retailers, and ultimately shoppers at their supermarket seafood counters can be sure of what species of fish is being imported, where it was caught, by which type of fishing gear, and even by what vessel. This week, a United Nations working group is also expected to make recommendations on how to protect ocean habitats in international waters.
But no need to wait. Seafood consumers can already stop the illegal harvesting, with only minor sacrifice: It means, for instance, passing up the all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet at your favorite restaurant, and gently letting the manager know why: America’s favorite seafood, by volume, makes up fully a quarter of all our imported seafood, and it’s often not what’s advertised on the label. Illegal shrimp fishing in Mexico is, among other things, the leading cause for the impending disappearance of the vaquita, a small porpoise that is the world’s most endangered marine mammal.
Tuna—both the canned type and the stuff in sushi rolls—is another common illegally-sourced fish on American plates, according to a study last year in Marine Policy. “Almost all of the world’s tuna stocks are nearly fully exploited and some are overexploited,” the paper noted. Unreported catches of bluefin tuna from the Mediterranean are a major factor in the rapid decline of the population there. Likewise, North Sea cod have struggled to recover due to illegal fishing. Since no sane shopper can keep track of all this stuff, bring along the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app to help.
Ask the people behind the seafood counter where the fish they sell is caught and whether they can document that it is legal. The more consumers ask the question, the more retailers will feel the need to get the answers—and avoid, for instance, the 40 percent of tuna imported from Thailand that’s caught illegally, and the 70 percent of salmon from China. Finally, you can support American fishermen by joining your local Community Supported Fishery. Find the one nearest you here.
Illegal and unreported fishing is “probably the largest contributor to global overfishing,” said Roberta Elias, deputy director of marine and fisheries policy at the World Wildlife Fund. “It’s a major factor in the global degradation of marine ecosystems.” The good news is that it’s something we can stop without waiting for new laws or technologies, simply by the way we choose to shop.