Satellites to help fight illegal fishing

January 06, 2016 12:00 am | Updated September 22, 2016 10:13 pm IST

An initiative is arming coastguards with data that allows them to track pirate vessels

Pirate fishing vessels plundering fish from the world’s marine reserves, such as the one around Ascension Island, can now be watched, tracked and brought to justice using satellite technology.

Despite a proliferation of huge, publicly lauded marine reserves, actually stopping fishing in many remote areas has previously been almost impossible.

A UK-funded initiative, developed by Satellite Applications Catapult (SAC) and the Pew Charitable Trusts, uses satellite radars to track these “dark targets”. Now, instead of blindly patrolling vast areas of ocean, coastguard vessels use the satellite intelligence to target their search.

“We don’t put a cop on every corner 24 hours a day. So let’s at least know what the situation out on the water is [before sending boats to investigate],” said Bradley Soule, senior fisheries analyst for SAC. Satellite radar has traditionally been used by the military and law enforcement agencies. But the cost has dropped dramatically, opening up the data for private companies to use. “It is definitely a big deal,” he said. “[The global satellite tracking] gives you a sense of the scope ... It is a wide—ranging problem.”

In the past, said Soule, the problem was not effectively shared between neighbouring governments. This meant “there are opportunities for bad actors to move swiftly across borders and use our borders against us”. But even though the system is still effectively being trialled, having only been in development for two years, it has already been used during investigations. The details of these are not yet public.

Soule said: “We have identified some abnormal behaviour and are working with the relevant authorities.” “There really is a breakthrough in terms of remote sensing,” said Charles Clover, the chair of the Blue Marine Foundation who lobbied the UK government for the creation of the Ascension marine protected area (MPA). However, he added that “the feasibility of actually taking a prosecution through the courts using remote sensing [on its own] is still questioned by the Foreign Office” and the technology would still require boats in the water.

The Guardian understands that satellite technology will play a part in the enforcement of the 234,291km2 Ascension MPA. An initial study of Ascension waters using satellites found at least eight boats that had turned off their transponders and were possibly fishing illegally.

SAC is already working with the UK government to track vessels in the world’s largest marine reserve around Pitcairn Island.

Ascension’s lonely volcanic peak juts from the heart of the Atlantic Ocean, almost midway between South America and Africa. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) ocean protection programme, Dan Laffoley said the waters around Ascension were one of the few remaining places where the marine environment had not been irreversibly damaged by overfishing. But even here, recent years have seen a rapid decline.(c) Guardian News & Media Ltd

Fishing vessels have to carry a transponder that tracks their movements and allows authorities to monitor their behaviour. But illegal fishers simply switch off the machine, disappearing from the system. Roughly one in every five fish caught is illegally caught.

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