The Catapult and Pew Charitable Trusts satellite tracking of boats could help end illegal fishing

Illegal fishing reeled in by new satellite tracking system

A new satellite tracking and data analysis system has been unveiled to help combat illegal fishing in oceans around the world.

Project Eyes on the Seas, a joint venture between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Satellite Applications Catapult, uses different sources of live satellite tracking, including the on-board AIS (Automatic Identification System), to monitor the route, speed and activity of fishing vessels. The existing worldwide trade in illegal fishing is valued at approximately $23.5bn.

The system uses algorithms designed to send proximity alerts to track suspicious activity such as two vessels coming together for more than 30 minutes. This often indicates a transhipment where illegally caught fish and supplies are transferred from one vessel to anther. The system also tracks ships crossing into marine reserves or new economic zones.

Commander Tony Long, director of Pew’s Ending Illegal Fishing Project said: “We want, as a minimum, to hold three years’ worth of data to effectively rewind time. If we see a fishing vessel that is acting suspiciously, we can go back in time to see the other vessels it’s interacted with and the ports it has been to.”

The alerts are monitored in a Virtual Watch Room where analysts can record suspicious shipping activity and communicate this to local authorities when ships return to port. This process used to take up to 18 hours but can now be completed in approximately 18 milliseconds.

After its launch, the Virtual Watch Room will initially focus on the waters surrounding the Chilean territory of Easter Island and the Pacific Island nation of Palau.

Koebel Sakuma, a representative of the President of Palau, explained how Project Eyes will help the country to establish their own marine reserve. “Palau is trying to implement a large-scale marine protected area that we’re calling the Palau National Marine Sanctuary,” he said. “We’ve been working with Pew for several years to come up with the basic framework, which we’ve now presented to congress. The success of this whole initiative is very tied to the ability of Palau to monitor our EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone).”

Long explained that after developing the system to its operational variant, the project would then wait for nations to establish partnerships to use the surveillance system to end illegal fishing.

“We are looking into a longer-term partnership with Catapult in order to build the system for the difficult task of ending illegal fishing,” Long said. “This takes a lot more analysis and the first area we will look at is off South-East Africa where we have already got a relationship established and there are several other areas who are very interested in taking this data fusion to make their systems more collaborative. That will happen over the next two to four years.”

The new system has also attracted interest from retail corporation Metro Group, which wants to use the technology to discover exactly when and where the fish it plans to sell has been caught and if the vessels they employ have been complying with regulations.

“Metro group has announced a partnership with Pew because they want to know exactly where the fish is caught,” Long explained. “We can now help them to evidence it and they can demand that the fishing vessels are more transparent, which stops vessels turning off their transponders when they arrive in port and can’t prove where they’ve been. That will start to change the balance of the number of vessels that are actually ‘dark’ and reduce the problem and the cost of finding them.”

Although the system has been launched to end illegal fishing, the developers acknowledged that it could also be adapted to combat piracy and smuggling.

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