THE BLOG

Game Changer in Fight Against Illegal Fishing

06/12/2015 11:53 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016
Pew Charitable Trusts

There's a good chance that in the time it takes you to read this story, a crew of seafaring criminals has hauled stolen fish worth tens of thousands of dollars onto a boat. These illegal acts can take many forms: fishing without a license, violating a protected marine reserve, using banned gear, not reporting a catch, or breaking any number of other fisheries laws. Illegal fishing takes place on a grand scale every day, accounting for up to $23.5 billion in stolen seafood yearly -- or around one in every five fish taken from our oceans.

Illegal fishers commit their crimes with no regard for law-abiding fishermen, ocean health, or even the safety and well-being of their own crews. These illicit operators are also linked to other serious crimes and human-rights abuses, including drug smuggling, human trafficking, modern slavery, and murder.

Over the years, law-enforcement authorities, fisheries managers and scientists have devised various ways to curb illegal fishing. But most have failed because they lack a critical element in stopping any theft: awareness of where and when the crimes are occurring. Efforts to clamp down on illegal fishing traditionally rely on aircraft and patrol vessels, which are often prohibitively expensive -- even for wealthy nations. The vastness of the ocean makes this traditional at-sea surveillance and enforcement largely ineffective.

Now, however, a new technological platform is poised to solve the challenges of stopping illegal fishing.

Project Eyes on the Seas, a joint initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the UK-based Satellite Applications Catapult, combines satellite monitoring of the oceans with other information, such as fishing-vessel databases and oceanographic data, to help authorities detect suspicious fishing activity far more efficiently than has been possible in the past -- often in near-real time.

At the heart of Project Eyes on the Seas are algorithms that synthesize and analyze multiple layers of data. Whenever the system picks up on suspicious movements, such as a known illegal or unlicensed vessel exhibiting a telltale "fishing" pattern or a vessel loitering in a protected marine reserve, it automatically generates an alert that prompts a fisheries analyst to investigate further. The analyst can then determine whether the activity warrants additional investigation, and if so, notify the appropriate authorities.

Enforcement decisions remain in the hands of trained professionals. Nevertheless, the system adds important value by giving law-enforcement authorities the intelligence they need to make a more informed call. This allows Project Eyes on the Seas to reduce to milliseconds an investigative task that previously took hours or days to complete.

The platform is designed to be cost-effective for governments around the world, including the most resource-poor enforcement agencies.

Of course, to be effective, the platform must have current and accurate data. To that end, Pew and its partners have begun to develop a credible and comprehensive global database of fishing vessels that includes international-, regional-, and national-vessel registries. This global database contains detailed records on a vessel's country of registration, aliases, and known history of illegal or unreported fishing.

The database also includes information on any links that vessel owners and operators may have to other owners, vessels, or fleets that have been flagged as bad actors. This information, combined with details on a vessel's current and historical movement and activity, provides an opportunity for the system to generate in-depth, up-to-date dossiers on suspicious vessels.

Armed with this intelligence, government officials can coordinate an appropriate enforcement response to intercept a suspicious ship or conduct a targeted compliance inspection. If law enforcement is unable to interdict the vessel, a request for assistance to prosecute and potentially fine the owners can be sent to the country where the vessel is registered. International bodies that oversee fishing on the high seas -- and have the power to bar the offending vessel from further fishing -- can also be notified.

Project Eyes on the Seas also has applications throughout the seafood-supply chain. Seafood retailers can use the system to help ensure that they are not purchasing from illegal fishing vessels, for example, by requiring boats to consistently and transparently transmit their location via electronic transponders. In doing so, the system will help create a market incentive for fishing vessels to demonstrate they operate in good faith and in accordance with national and international laws.

Project Eyes on the Seas is not a silver bullet for ending illegal fishing, which will require a cohesive, collaborative effort among fishing nations, maritime authorities, ports, the countries that register vessels, international-fisheries bodies, and other stakeholders. Fulfilling that goal is still a work in progress. In the meantime, by shining a glaring and irrefutable light on the bad actors -- and by helping law-abiding fleets showcase their good behavior -- Eyes on the Seas has the capability to dramatically reduce illegal fishing.

And that will be a story worth reading.

Tony Long is director of the ending illegal fishing project at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.