Evolution of the Fight against Illegal Fishing (IUU) – A Decade of Investments in Satellite Based Vessel Tracking Technologies

The essence of public reports on "IUU fishing" is often lost in translation. Private corporations, charitable trusts, and NGO joint ventures are exploiting satellite-based AIS signals to track illegal fishing vessels. Virtually every NGO backed startups have a AIS based satellite-tracking project to track illegal vessels, or use AI and machine learning to automate AIS tracking of fishing fleet. NGOs and startups backed by foundations in Europe and USA are also the biggest recipients of government and private charitable donations for deploying satellite based tracking software technologies.

IUU Fishing

Over the past 18 years as a fisheries consultant, researcher and auditor I have worked on illegal fishing projects in various roles worldwide. In terms of research, I’ve seen that the voluminous public reports on “IUU fishing” are frequently bulky, and the essence is frequently lost in translation. Many research articles are rehashes of previous research reports or studies, with very few factual contributions to the body of knowledge. On the plus side, increased awareness of “IUU Fishing” has resulted in improved government oversight in the African and Asia-Pacific sub-continents. On the IUU front, more than ten distinct trends can be identified. I’ll limit myself to three for the sake of brevity in this blog post.

a) Monumental increase in private companies, charitable trusts and NGO joint venture initiatives to track illegal fishing vessels using satellite based AIS signals:

The AIS based tracking system maps and displays the activity of fishing ships using data from satellite-based automatic identification systems (AIS) via Google Earth frontend software. The system employs an algorithm to extract data from the AIS specific to fishing vessels and analyses it in order to track the identity and movements of fishing ships. Some of the notable platforms include “Global Fishing Watch”, SkyTruth and Catapult.

The IMO Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Regulation V/19.2.4 requires all vessels above 300 GT engaged in international voyages at sea irrespective of size to carry AIS onboard. The AIS transmits a ship identifier and location information from a ship’s VHF transmitters, but it does not distinguish between vessel types. This system, however, will be unable to monitor the activity of smaller boats that are not required to install AIS trackers, as well as those that choose to turn off their transmitter when entering restricted zones.

IUU Fishing using AIS signals fishing fleet
Photo: Pramod Ganapathiraju

b) Use of Civilian Offshore Patrol Vessels (COPVs) to scout and expose IUU fleets:

The enforcement of fisheries laws and regulations is crucial in combating IUU fishing. Many African coastal governments, on the other hand, lack offshore patrol vessels capable of covering their full territorial waters. Sea Shepherd (a non-profit marine conservation organisation) has been working with national authorities and regional partners since 2016 to conduct direct action patrols at sea in West Africa and Mexico in collaboration with national navies, utilising Sea Shepherd vessels. Sea Shepherd is the only organisation that provides civilian offshore patrol vessels (COPVs) to partner countries so that their fisheries and conservation laws can be enforced in their territorial waters.

Greenpeace was perhaps the first organisation to document illegal fishing by foreign vessels in the EEZs of developing countries through COPVs, but it has focused more on the high seas waters as well as other issues like forced Labour, etc. in recent times. It is also perhaps the only other organisation that has launched protests using activists. It regularly publishes useful research reports highlighting IUU fishing incidents in the fishing industry.

c) NGOs have jumped on the IUU bandwagon:

In the last five years I have seen more western NGOs and charities running campaigns on illegal fishing than any other time in the past two decades. Virtually every ENGO has some satellite based tracking project to track illegal vessels or is running some fisheries enforcement related project or fishery improvement pilot in one or more developing countries. I have also seen that NGOs are the biggest beneficiaries of all the funding that is coming from Government projects and private charitable organisations. Government research institutions and universities are the tier-two beneficiaries. From a research perspective, new funding on IUU fishing can contribute to an increase in information flow and public awareness on this topic.

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