A Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel suspected of illegal fishing that was stopped and boarded by the US Navy in 2009

Satellite tracking to clamp down on illegal fishing

Satellite tracking will be used to help detect large scale illegal fishing on the high seas which involves an estimated one in five fish caught.

Satellites will be used to track vessels using their automatic identification system (AIS), which usually monitors movements around ports and coasts, and to collect information such as images to build up a picture of what is happening at sea.

The initiative is a joint venture between the Satellite Applications Catapult, a technology innovation company set up as part of the Technology Strategy Boards catapult network, and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Information could be used to support prosecutions and identify vessels which may have been involved in illegal fishing activities on the high seas, so that they can be investigated when they come into port.

The data can also be used to support certification for legal fisheries, so that consumers can be sure where their fish has come from and make it harder to sell produce from the £14bn a year illegal industry that cannot be effectively traced.

"The oceans are a bit like the Wild West. They are the last bastion of large, unregulated, unmonitored territory, which is why a large portion of organised crime is out there. There are big factory ships that never come into port, and staffed by slave labour," said Stuart Martin, chief executive of the Satellite Applications Catapult.

"We can begin to build up a good picture of what's going on on the high oceans. It can support the evidence base for any prosecutions and also help identify vessels that, when they come into port, might warrant further investigation."

The move comes as the Global Ocean Commission, made up of former world leaders, government ministers and senior business figures, unveiled proposals for helping the high seas recover from overfishing, environmental damage and the rush for resources.

The commission, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, has spent 18-months investigating the problems faced by the world's oceans and a new report outlines eight proposals to restore the 64 per cent of the seas which fall outside national jurisdictions.

The measures include strengthening international governance of the high seas and stopping overfishing through moves such as ending harmful fishing subsidies.

Steps should also be taken to prevent plastic pollution out of the oceans and establish binding safety and environmental standards for offshore oil and gas exploration, the report says.

The commission also urges efforts are made to close seas, ports and markets to illegal and unreported fishing through steps such as preventing ships from transferring fish to other vessels at sea and encouraging retailers to "ethically" source their fish.

If the health of the global oceans do not improve over the next five years or so, governments should consider declaring the high seas – except where regional management is working – a regeneration zone where industrial fishing is banned, the commission suggests.

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