Tracking Fishy Behavior, From Space

Since the first hook caught the first fish perhaps years ago, technology has raced with increasing speed to extract more and more fish from the oceans. Most big fish are long gone and fishing vessels are inexorably hauling in the rest-sometimes legally, sometimes not.

But on Friday, American non-profits SkyTruth and Oceana, supported by Google, unveiled a prototype program called Global Fishing Watch that will eventually allow anyone with a computer to observe which vessel is fishing where-and perhaps infer whether they are poaching or not.

'Our goal is to make the invisible visible,' John Amos, the president of SkyTruth, told me. The tiny company (it has four employees) based in Charlottesville, West Virginia, made a name for itself by acquiring and releasing satellite pictures that showed that the amount of oil flowing from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was greater than BP was claiming at the time.

According to the team, it will be possible for experts to go online and zoom into areas like marine reserves where fishing is forbidden or coastal areas where it's restricted to vessels with permits by next March.

The program is based on the Automatic Identification System (AIS), originally a voluntary collision-avoidance system for ships that relies on VHS transmitters aboard vessels that transmit their position, identity and speed continuously to other ships and to satellites. 'Global Fishing Watch enables the user to see the global fishing fleet in both space and time, and in any part of the world,' said David Manthos of SkyTruth.

Right now, the plan is to give access to that data to fisheries managers, non-profits and researchers only. But if they get get additional funding to pay for the raw satellite data and for further engineering the system to process billions of data points a year, the team would be able to invite anyone to sign on. To make that possible they'd need somewhere between $3 and $5 million more over the next two years, according to Jackie Savitz, VP for US oceans at Oceana. Broadening access will allow more people to pressure the governments who would already have access to the information into investigating what everybody saw. That's different from today's system, where only some people get satellite information, and those people might not be willing to do anything with it. 'Now there's no public pressure at all,' explained Savitz.

AIS transponders aren't foolproof-they can be turned off and manipulated. But Amos of SkyTruth said that even vessels that choose to turn them off will trigger alerts and find it hard to escape detection and questioning when they turn them on again or reach a port.

Poaching of fish is not a major problem in the US or Europe, but these countries consume mostly imported fish. Experts I talked to predict this new transparency would increase fishing revenue in some poor countries, reduce overfishing in others and, most importantly, insure that the huge no-take areas that have been appearing around the world in the past few years are actually left alone, allowing overfished populations of marine life to grow back in health and numbers inside them.

Without measures like this, fish could soon become a very scarce commodity. Today's fish stocks are vastly smaller than they were just a century ago. Dirk Zeller, senior scientist of the Sea Around Us research program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, estimates that the combined weight of table fish like cod and tuna in the ocean has dropped anywhere from 60 to 90 percent over the last century. 'The global catch is declining because the fish stocks have shrunk so much in spite of the fact that technology makes it easier and easier to catch fish in deeper, more remote waters,' he said.

Many countries ban foreign fleets from fishing close to shore, because they deprive coastal people of their main source of protein. But often these governments have no way to enforce those bans. Now they will at least be able to identify the vessels fishing over the horizon who should be fined or forced to pay for a fishing licenses.

For example in offshore West Africa, one of the most productive coasts in the world, Chinese and other foreign vessels routinely fish without permits. Identifying them would allow those governments to oblige them to pay the standard license fees or face expulsion and possible fines. 'This will increase their income and maybe allow some countries to decrease their catch without losing money,' he said.

Identifying poachers is a big step forward, but it's still a long way from arrest and confiscation. Still, it's likely to considerably expand the number of 300 vessels that are already blacklisted by international authorities because they were caught poaching. These vessels have a difficult time selling their catch and are sometimes even not allowed into ports.

But Daniel Pauly, a professor of fisheries also at UBC, warns that since fishing permits are not public in most countries, it's difficult for an observer far away to tell whether a given vessel that's fishing in a country's waters is doing so legally or not. 'In Africa, it's not hard to get a piece of paper, a permit, from a corrupt fisheries official,' he said. 'In Asia, there are industrial fisheries with more financial clout, so to make them back down when they're caught red-handed is not obvious.' So its too early to tell exactly to what extent poor, coastal countries will benefit practically from the learning the identify of the vessels that are stealing their fish, the experts say.


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