MDA partners with NGO to use historical satellite data to fight illegal fishing

Lacey Malarky, Oceana’s illegal fishing and transparency campaign manager, monitors the GPS location of a fishing boat in the Atlantic Ocean from her computer at the headquarters of the NGO Oceana on June 10, 2019 in Washington, DC .ERIC BARADAT

An organization dedicated to monitoring illegal fishing will use satellite data from a major Canadian space company to help guide sea patrols and other law enforcement activities.

Global Fishing Watch announced at a United Nations conference in Lisbon on Tuesday that it will use 14 years of archived data from MDA Ltd’s Radarsat-2 radar satellite. to identify previously unmonitored fishing activities. David Kroodsma, director of research and innovation at Global Fishing Watch, said the analysis will help determine where and when the coastguard is deploying ships and planes.

Mr Kroodsma said it was difficult to monitor activity at sea until recently. “You have to find the activity patterns to know where you are focusing your patrols,” he said.

According to an oft-cited estimate, “illegal, unregulated and unreported” (IUU) fishing accounts for around one in five fish caught globally. It is often accompanied by forced labour, money laundering, tax evasion and other criminal activities, and is disconcerting to uncover: offenders routinely conceal ownership of vessels and regularly repaint, rename and reflag vessels. ships.

On Monday, US President Joe Biden signed a memorandum to combat IUU fishing. The White House said in a statement that the United States, United Kingdom and Canada will launch an alliance aimed at increasing ambition and momentum in the fight against IUU fishing. Nearly two dozen US federal agencies are due to release a five-year plan to address the problem by the end of next month.

For years, private companies like MDA and organizations like Global Fishing Watch have used analytics technology to monitor illegal fishing. Most large ocean-going vessels are required to have an automatic identification system (AIS) on board, for example, which broadcasts a vessel’s identity and location and helps prevent collisions. These data may reveal movements indicative of standard fishing techniques such as trawling.

Some illegal fishers turn off their AIS before venturing out of bounds, such as into another country’s territorial waters or a marine protected area. (They’re known as “darkships.”) Another tool, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) can detect bright lights at night, but criminals darken to thwart it.

This is where radar satellites come in. Unlike true-color imagery of the type available with Google Earth, they can monitor vast expanses of ocean even when obscured by clouds or darkness. They can also be used to count metal objects in the water, and are therefore useful for identifying large vessels.

Global Fishing Watch previously studied data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 radar satellite, which Kroodsma said produced “incredible information”. However, this data only captures fishing activity within a few hundred nautical miles of shore. MDA covers much larger expanses of ocean, he said, and over a longer period of time. Since satellites can detect vessels that have been overnight, the data can provide a more complete picture of fishing activity than AIS alone.

Mr. Kroodsma added that historical data shows that fishing patterns are quite predictable. “So if you can look at what’s happened in the last five months of June in the southern part of the ocean, that gives you an idea of ​​what’s likely to happen this year to plan your patrols.”

He said his organization had identified hundreds of vessels fishing in North Korean waters in violation of UN sanctions. Mike Greenley, CEO of MDA, said some illegal operations coordinate the activities of as many as 300 fishing vessels, supported by others who refuel them and collect and freeze the catch.

“Historical analysis can allow you to analyze the behavior of these operations and how they have evolved,” he said, which can help law enforcement officials in future operations.

Dyhia Belhabib of Ecotrust Canada and Nautical Crime Investigation Services said that until recently most authorities had to guess where to deploy patrols. “Not only did they not catch anything, but it was also very inefficient and illegal fishing was not discouraged,” she said.

Dr Belhabib said the increased use of data and intelligence has led to a “direct increase” in enforcement action. She added, however, that she doesn’t think offenders are reconsidering their activities, in part because the data is rarely enough to prove in court that the crimes took place. Moreover, the penalties are not severe enough in many jurisdictions.

“So, does this have a deterrent effect? This will be the case in the future, but we are not there yet.

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