It is estimated that one in five fish caught has been fished illegally, the product of an illicit global business worth an estimated $23 billion each year. Large fishing vessels, operating far from land and the eyes of the authorities, plunder tuna and other high value catches wherever they can find them. Off-loading their catch to factory ships, which re-supply them with food and fuel, fishing boats can stay at sea for years. The cost is not just financial; crews are often kept on board against their will, economic slaves.
The challenge of finding the criminals and gathering evidence against them in the middle of an ocean is described by Koebel Sakuma, adviser to Palau’s president, “We’re a small country with limited resources and we’re responsible for patrolling a vast area with one vessel donated by Australia.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts, a US based Non-Government Organisation (NGO) approached the Satellite Applications Catapult to see how space might provide a solution.
The Satellite Applications Catapult set up an eight-person team that devised a unique way to spot potentially illegal fishing activity. In normal practice, vessels over 300 tonnes must use an ’Automatic Identification System (AIS) to send a signal with their position. In the event of a catastrophe, this would show its last-known location. Turning its AIS transmitter off normally indicates that a vessel is doing something it doesn’t want seen.
Using information from various databases, operators can quickly work out what the suspect vessel is, where it is registered and what its recent history may be. Previous positions are shown as well as the undersea topography over which its sailing. A slow moving ship on a zigzag course around a seamount would suggest fishing activity. Multiple signals in close proximity may indicate a fleet. A manager or fisheries protection officer now has sufficient (logged) information to decide whether to intercept the suspect vessels, or alert port authorities to watch out for them trying to land a potentially illegal catch.
This is possible thanks the unique capabilities of satellites, which are unblinking, indefatigable and able to monitor huge areas at once. The key to the success of the project, however, is the way space data combines with other sources of information to create an easy to use tool that provides, in seconds, actionable intelligence that previously would have taken days or weeks to gather.
The Satellite Applications Catapult team has delivered these services to seven governments to date. It is also making international retailers and wholesalers aware of a potentially lucrative new marketing opportunity: selling fish that have been sourced legally and ethically, with consumers able to trace their journey from sea to store. Space has an extraordinary ability to boost other sectors but its full potential has been kept earthbound due to lack of finance,
a problem common to many parts of the innovation world.