Satellite data, such as synthetic aperture radar imagery provided by satellites like Radarsat-2, can help identify illegal fishing. (credit: CSA)
Managing ocean sustainability from above: leveraging space capabilities to combat illegal fishing
by Cody Knipfer Monday, March 6, 2023
The oceans are integral to our global ecosystem. As a source of nutrition and livelihood for much of the world’s population, ocean health is critical for UN development goals. Activities that jeopardize the sustainability of marine resources, particularly illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, are therefore a major international issue. Fortunately, space capabilities such as satellite radar and multispectral imaging are making it easier for the international community to track, characterize, and combat illegal fishing.
Illegal fishing’s impact and challenges facing enforcement
Illegal fishing’s impact, particularly on the developing world, cannot be overstated. A fifth of global fishing is conducted illegally, harming at-risk communities. It contributes to the depletion of nearly 90% of global fisheries, impacting populations affected by climate change and food scarcity. Overconsumption of fisheries affects up to 10% of the world’s population, which depends on them for income, along with 4.3 billion people who rely on fish for protein intake. Economically, illegal fishing is responsible for losses of up to $23.5 billion a year, stymying sustainable development, especially for economies reliant on oceans. Troublingly, its epicenter is Africa, one of the world’s most vulnerable continents.
Space capabilities such as satellite radar and multispectral imaging are making it easier for the international community to track, characterize, and combat illegal fishing.
Managing illegal fishing requires effective and global monitoring tools, a challenge for enforcement. While most commercial vessels utilize tracking systems such as the “Automatic Information System” (AIS) and the “Vessel Monitoring System” (VMS), disabling them is a common practice in illegal fishing. Smaller vessels often lack these systems altogether. This is made more complicated by fishing vessels registering, through “flags of convenience,” with states with weak regulatory controls. In the absence of strong regulatory oversight, these boats’ operators can more easily evade enforcement. Perpetrators often sail from, or sell their catches at, ports that lack the infrastructure, resources, or incentive to conduct comprehensive screening. This is a critical problem, as ports are where most—and the most effective—inspection and enforcement activities take place.
Monitoring from above: the role of satellite capabilities
Nonetheless, the international community is making progress preventing illegal fishing, with space capabilities helping overcome these challenges. As overhead monitoring platforms, satellites provide actionable intelligence that assists in tracking of and enforcement against perpetrators. Recent developments in satellite technology and the satellite market have facilitated global coverage and rapid revisit times. Along with new sensing applications and AI-driven data analysis, these have made satellites important tools for counter-IUU fishing initiatives.
With wide fields of view and global reach, satellites can identify and continuously monitor vessels in ways infeasible with land, sea, or air assets. Satellites equipped with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) can generate radar images of Earth’s oceans. SAR can detect vessels through darkness and strong weather, even if they aren’t transmitting AIS or VMS signals. Other satellites monitor radiofrequency (RF) spectrum for emissions. These can pinpoint unique radio signatures and transmissions from ships, enabling tracking when AIS or VMS is shut off. Satellite-based visible infrared imagers can detect the infrared signature of brightly lit boats, making them suited to track vessels that operate at night, such as squid boats.
These diverse datasets, fed through AI analysis featuring real-time edge computing and machine learning, enable authorities to quickly identify discrepancies in vessel behavior that may point to suspicious activity such as illegal fishing. Coupled with optical imagery, it allows for persistent tracking of flagged vessels from fishing grounds back to port, where authorities can prepare to confront suspected perpetrators or those who are sheltering them. Likewise, this data helps spot and stop “trans-shipments,” in which illegal catches are transferred from the offending fishing boat to another.
When employed with the right technical expertise, satellites are becoming increasingly valuable tools to predict, identify, and pursue illegal fishing.
Satellites also provide data for preemptive planning against illegal fishing. Hyperspectral imaging, used on satellites such as ESA’s Sentinel, measures oceanic conditions ranging from temperature and depth, to the distribution and abundance of marine life. Satellites like NOAA’s JPSS are used to geolocate tagged oceanic wildlife, identifying where they congregate and migrate. Together, this data provides understanding of the location, size, and movement of marine populations. With that information, authorities can better allocate resources to and prioritize inspection and enforcement in current or predicted areas with large fish populations, which are at highest risk of illegal fishing.
From tracking to enforcement: putting satellite capabilities to use
Satellite-derived intelligence is already being put to effective use by NGO, national, and international counter-IUU fishing initiatives. For example, the United States is leveraging satellite SAR data to support illegal fishing enforcement through the multilateral Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness. Canada, in partnership with Ecuador, has launched a “Dark Vessel Detection” program that utilizes satellite capabilities to locate vessels that have turned off AIS or VMS tracking. The NGO Global Fishing Watch has created an open-source, interactive online map of global ocean traffic, for public and government use, that analyzes satellite data to support efforts against illegal fishing. Similarly, the NGO Pew Charitable Trusts has launched “Project Eyes on the Seas,” which synthesizes satellite data in real-time to detect suspicious fishing activity.
These initiatives are strong models for future multilateral initiatives. Satellite tracking of vessels, for example, can support stronger implementation of the UN Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), which seeks to deter illegal fishing by denying port access to foreign vessels that engage in such practices. By monitoring illegal fishing traffic into and out of ports, satellites can identify, and help report through the PSMA Global Information Exchange System, offending states that require more competency-building to meet their PSMA obligations.
Space capabilities alone won’t prevent illegal fishing, nor address its causes. Winning the fight against illegal fishing will require effective regulation, enforcement, partnerships, and international buy-in. Still, when employed with the right technical expertise, satellites are becoming increasingly valuable tools to predict, identify, and pursue illegal fishing. Through satellite data, it is hard for perpetrators to hide from enforcement. By leveraging these capabilities, the international community will better manage ocean sustainability—by monitoring it from above.