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By Adam Morton 26 June 2017 5 min read

Image: Shutterstock

The Atlantic Ocean along the African west coast is, by reputation, the world’s richest. It is also among the least policed. According to a recent study in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing costs cash-strapped local countries more than $2 billion a year.

If the scale of that is difficult to get your head around, consider the plight of Senegalese artisanal fishers, and the families they feed. Their catch of sardines and mackerel is disappearing. Alassane Samba, a former director of Senegal’s oceanic research institute, told the New York Times: “If things keep going the way they are, people will have to eat jellyfish to survive.”

Senegalese authorities have had some small successes in hitting back. In early June, it detained seven Chinese trawlers for illegally fishing in its waters. But China alone is estimated to have a long-range fishing fleet of 2600 vessels, many of them acting illegally and capable of catching in a week what a Senegalese boat can in a year. At this point, the response is little more than a drop in the ocean.

Understanding the scope of the problem

The problem of illegal fishing is, of course, global.

About half the world’s population relies on seafood as their main source of protein. The Food and Agriculture Organization reported in 2013 that 31.4 per cent of fisheries were overfished. It is estimated between 11 and 19 per cent of what is caught qualifies as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU for short). Up to a third of the fish for sale in developed countries such as the US is likely to have been caught illegally.

In the southern hemisphere, Indonesia is among the countries trying to do something about it. It has been estimated the industrial IUU catch in the Arafura Sea, between West Papua and the Northern Territory, is 50 per cent greater than the legal haul. In 2014, the government responded with steps including banning transhipment – the transfer of a catch from one ship to another, allowing trawlers to stay at sea longer and making it harder to track illegal activity – and requiring large vessels to be part of a monitoring system. But identifying offenders remains a challenge.

A new web-based alert system developed by CSIRO researchers aims to help with this. Funded through a $3.6 million philanthropic grant from Vulcan, a US philanthropic foundation set up by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, it aims to narrow the net for maritime authorities by profiling vessels behaving suspiciously.

Hobart-based senior research scientist Chris Wilcox, part of the core team of six working on the system, says it is part of a larger project that aims to help combat IUU fishing by making better use of existing data sets and identifying new low-cost sources of information.

Statistical algorithms applied to data from anti-collision devices detected by satellites can identify if a vessel has, for example, turned off its tracking system or is moving in an unusual way, such as slowing down in an area where it shouldn’t be fishing.

“It doesn’t say they are doing something illegal, but it says they are doing something abnormal. We’re trying to provide better intelligence to the fisheries managers and port officials so that when vessels come into port it helps them pick which vessels they should go and inspect,” Dr Wilcox says.

“If you go to a port there might be three, four or five port inspectors but they could have hundreds of vessels coming in during a day, so prioritising which vessels to inspect is a major issue. It’s the same idea as the police using profiling to work out where to put their assets.”

The project had unlikely beginnings. An ecologist and conservation biologist by training, Dr Wilcox was investigating animal movement – the patterns in how they move around, and the role of memory in how they position themselves – when he realised many of the models he was using could also be applied to humans.

He believes using the tool, known as vessel risk notification, could focus authorities’ attention on just 5 to 10 per cent of the vessels coming into port. Countries can sign up for notifications or search and receive a report on particular vessels. Thanks to Vulcan’s philanthropic support, it is initially being offered for free.

A global movement to address a global problem

It comes at a time when the issue is receiving belated attention across the globe. The United Nations Port State Measures Agreement, struck in 2009 in a bid to combat illegal fishing, came into force last year once 25 countries had ratified it. In basic terms, it says all coastal countries in the world will inspect fishing vessels that come into port for compliance with international regulations.

Separately, Google and conservation groups Oceana and SkyTruth last September launched Global Fishing Watch, a website that publishes online the real-time activity of vessels across the globe as means to tackle IUU fishing. It was partly funded by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

The Indonesian Fisheries Ministry, which collaborated on the CSIRO tool, is particularly interested. Lilis Sadiyah, the project leader in Jakarta, says the software is simple to use and will be valuable for the ministry’s surveillance division.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority is yet to use it, but is talking with CSIRO about what it could provide. “This could be a useful tool in our compliance kit to combat IUU fishing,” says Brendan Rayner, acting manager of international compliance operations.

Dr Wilcox says others to have expressed interest include the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Global Fishing Watch is also paying attention. Skytruth’s Paul Woods told ECOS a significant change is under way. “It’s as if a light has been turned on, and those who try to remain in the dark have nowhere to hide,” he says.

At a country level, governments are also asking to learn more. At a UN Ocean Conference in New York in June, Dr Wilcox met Senegalese Fisheries Minister Oumar Gueye.  “He asked if we would come over and show the system,” he says. “They’re interested in making use of it.”

Read more on the collaborative project between the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the Center for Fisheries Research and Development (CFRD) under the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries of the Republic of Indonesia.

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