A graphic showing a satellite monitoring a ship and beaming data to land

Illegal fishing in our sights as Eyes on the Seas project is launched

Around one-fifth of fish caught are harvested illegally. Project Eyes on the Seas has launched a new satellite system to combat this $23.5bn trade, and to protect the world’s remote oceans.

Project Eyes on the Seas has been developed to combat illegal fishing, and to analyse the suspicious activity of ships on the high seas in a matter of seconds. Launched as a joint venture by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Satellite Applications Catapult, the initiative is also designed to help small nations protect vast territorial waters and marine ecology without incurring large expenses.

“One in five fish is assessed to have been caught illegally, or dealt with in some sort of illegal manner,” explains Commander Tony Long, director of Pew’s Ending Illegal Fishing Project.

“That equates to $23.5bn worth of fish that goes missing every year. The economic penalty of this illegal fishing is huge but it’s also a social problem. Countries with poor resources, small islands with developing states do not have the resources available to them to patrol their economic zones and protected areas in the way that they would wish - it’s just too expensive.

“This system is trying to build an equitable methodology for everybody to get that information in order to protect the resources that are rightly theirs and draw on them responsibly as any state should be able to. That’s what is different about this approach - we’re trying to bring everything to bear in one place.”

Catapult’s satellite technology sends proximity alerts to the Virtual Watch Room (VWR) if ships cross into a marine reserve or a new economic zone or if two come together for more 30 minutes - a sign of a transshipment taking place.

“The transshipment vessels are important,” explains Long. “These are the vessels that will rendezvous with fishing vessels out at sea and they start to exchange fuel or fish or people or supplies and allow this fishing to carry on out of national jurisdictions, out on the high seas.

Long evidently takes pride in the system’s capabilities. “We can see when someone turns off their transponder, it’s the first indication that they’re about to do something illicit and we can then start to look more carefully at what they’re doing.”

As well as alerting the VWR when the system detects ships acting suspiciously, information is also added to a database that will allow analysts to retrace the movements of the ship in question.

“We want, as a minimum, to hold three years’ worth of data to effectively rewind time,” says Long. “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’s been to.”

The project’s ability to track any suspicious activity of fishing vessels has also attracted the attention of retail groups who are seeking to improve due diligence checks in their supply chain.

“Metro group take €1.2bn worth of fresh fish out of the water every year in a market chain across most of Europe,” says Long. “They want to know where it’s come from and we can now start to help them evidence it. They can demand that the fishing vessels become more transparent, which stops vessels turning off their transponders because when they arrive in port and can’t prove where they’ve been, Metro can say ‘sorry, we don’t want the fish because we can’t evidence the full supply chain.’ So that will change the balance of the number of vessels that are dark and reduce the cost of finding them.”

For the first stage of the project, the technology will focus on the waters surrounding the Chilean territory of Easter Island and the Pacific island nation of Palau. The aim is to expand the areas covered over the next two to four years.

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