Can Technology End Pirate Fishing?

Windward's maritime surveillance system (MarInt) shows a Japanese fishing boat that entered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Angola
Windward’s maritime surveillance system (MarInt) shows a Japanese fishing boat that entered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Angola, allegedly without permission.

Last week, a 60-meter Japanese fishing vessel following the Benguela Current northward along the southwest coast of Africa entered Angolan waters, where it remained for some five days before returning to international waters to meet side-by-side with a Japanese reefer vessel.

That activity is more than suspicious. Ships don’t just accidentally drift into the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of other countries and stay there for the good part of a week. This was almost certainly a textbook case of pirate fishing: one boat without proper permits or quota heads out onto the high seas to fish, and then later transfers that catch to a legal vessel while at sea. Similar illicit activity was observed by passengers aboard the National Geographic Explorer last April.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, also known as pirate fishing, is a massive problem across the globe. It is estimated that IUU fishing costs the industry as much as $23.5 billion per year and accounts for up to 20% of global wild marine catch, though the extent of the problem is impossible to determine.

From an environmental perspective, illegal fishers are often overfishing already depleted fish stocks, using destructive gear, and sabotaging responsible fisheries management efforts. From a health and community perspective, pirate fishers are robbing subsistence harvesters and other waterfront dwellers of their livelihoods. Over one billion people, most of whom are in developing countries, rely on seafood as their primary source of protein.

The word “pirate” can evoke some pretty whimsical imagery, but the reality is that pirate fishing is so convoluted and multifaceted that it defies any simple description. Activities that fall into the category of IUU fishing range from fishing above the set quota for a certain species (and failing to report it), to fishing within the EEZ of another country without permission, to violating regulations on a specific fishery, such as equipment standards, maximum trip time in a designated area, or maximum by-catch thresholds.

Some pirate ships hide their identities and origins by flying a different flag or painting a fake and unregistered name on their hull. According to Greenpeace, “With the click of a computer mouse, for as little as US$500, flags can be bought over the internet from countries like Malta, Panama, Belize, Honduras, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.”

Policing the Open Seas

At the crux of the issue is a lack of enforcement. Beyond the inherent difficulty of policing the open ocean, an absence of global coordination perpetuates this problem. Along with weak international governance, which comprises a patchwork of authorities and regulations, there are issues of poor cooperation, whether due to limited resources or interest, in getting individual nation-states to enforce IUU regulations at their ports. This is especially the case in certain regions, such as along the west coast of Africa and around the Pacific Islands, where fish habitats are lush and the enforcement capacity of sovereign authorities is minimal or nonexistent.

A few recent enforcement successes have been heartening, however. Last spring, a major tuna-fishing vessel that was suspected of illegal fishing in Liberian waters was denied access to ports in Seychelles and Mauritius, thanks in large part to a regional partnership called FISH-i: Africa. NOAA has pledged to work with ten nations with historically weak enforcement of IUU fishing, and six of these have already begun to take strong corrective actions against vessels suspected of illicit activities. Many other governmental and non-governmental entities have begun to make combating illegal fishing a priority, as global fish stocks decline and profits to be made by illegal fishers grow.

Some of the remaining difficulty comes down to a lack of surveillance capacity, which is where new technology solutions could prove to be game-changers in combating IUU fishing. One such technology called MarInt, created by an Israel-based company named Windward, was initially developed for enforcement and security-related maritime concerns, but is now also being used to identify suspicious behavior on the high seas.

A Technological Solution

MarInt uses commercial satellites to continuously monitor the movements of all seagoing vessels all over the world at all times—an ability that has never before been possible on a commercial level. More important, using algorithms, MarInt can analyze the behavior of those vessels in real time, and pinpoint the ones that behave suspiciously.

The system not only monitors a vessel’s location, but it can also show all of its identifying information, the path it’s traveled since leaving port, and other vessels in its fleet. It can even predict where the vessel will go next, based on historical data and ocean currents. And it does that not only for fishing vessels, but also for the reefers and gas tankers that enable their activities. That information allows MarInt users to see the exact origins of the fish carried by fishing vessels and reefers into ports all over the world, bringing new levels of clarity and traceability to the fishing industry.

Regardless of how it’s accomplished, increased clarity and traceability will yield benefits to everyone in the supply chain, from fisher to consumer. By being able to verify when, where, how, and by whom fish are caught, port authorities can deny entry to pirate fishing ships; suppliers can ensure there are no illegal fish in their inventories; consumers can be confident in the health, safety, and legality of the fish they’re purchasing; fishers and waterfront economies in developing countries can gain stability; and depleted fisheries can begin to rebuild.

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Barton Seaver is a chef and National Geographic Fellow who has dedicated his career to restoring the relationship we have with our ocean. It is his belief that the choices we are making for dinner are directly impacting the ocean and its fragile ecosystems.