Joining forces to combat clandestine fishing a US-based NGO and a British company have developed a system based on Big Data analysis that can warn the relevant authorities of a country when a ship is poaching in its territorial waters.

Big Data Analysis Helping to Combat Illegal Fishing

A United States NGO and a UK-based company have recently declared war on clandestine fishing. Using state-of-the-art technology, Pew Charitable Trusts and Satellite Applications Catapult have designed a system called ‘Project Eyes on the Seas’, which can gather and cross-reference large volumes of data in order to track illegal fishing activity worldwide. Other IT players have also set out to tackle this thorny problem, one example being Google, with its Global Fishing Watch project. However, the Google system depends largely on geolocation data coming from transponders, which all ships are required to have aboard. Fishermen engaged in illegal activity therefore tend to turn their transponders off. Project Eyes on the Sea on the other hand uses satellite images to gather data, coupled with databases on fishing vessels, coordinates of fishing zones and marine reserves, plus details of the depth and temperature of the water. The system combines all this data to identify sensitive zones and detect any anomalies there. When a boat enters a marine reserve, fishes in a forbidden zone, stops signalling its position or offloads its catch to another boat on the high seas – a method often used by illegal fishermen – an algorithm works out what is happening and sends an alert signal. The information is then studied in more detail by analysts, whose role it is to alert the relevant authorities and provide them with the relevant information. It is then up to the authorities concerned to take whatever action they deem appropriate.

Using Big Data could help identify illegal fishing more easily


Ending poacher immunity                

Illegal fishing is both an economic and an environmental curse. Every year, around one in five fish sold worldwide is caught as a result of an illegal, un-reported or unregulated (IUU) process. In some areas the rate is as high as 40%. This entails an undoubted economic loss to various countries – for instance Sierra Leone alone is thought to lose $30 million a year due to illegal fishing – but in addition, irreversible damage is being done to the biosphere, with a severe depletion of the quantity and variety of underwater species, as those who practice illegal fishing do not comply with biodiversity and sustainability rules and regulations. NGO Greenpeace estimates that 80% of all fish species are today being overfished, or are on the verge of being over-exploited. Illegal fishing is not the only culprit, but the practice certainly contributes to overfishing. The pirates often enjoy almost total immunity, firstly because it is impossible to cover an entire ocean with naval patrols deployed to catch clandestine fishermen in the act, and secondly because there is insufficient cooperation between the countries affected and very little interchange of knowhow and information at international level. Joshua Reichert, Executive Vice President of Pew Charitable Trusts, explains on Satellite Applications Catapult’s website that “Project Eyes on the Seas is designed to transform the current very expensive and patchy system of information gathering and enforcement into a global system for identifying and tracking illegal fishing vessels that is far more cost effective.”

Illegal fishing contributes to the destruction of marine fauna

Bringing uncooperative countries on board    

Is the initiative set up by Pew Charitable Trusts and Satellite Applications Catapult likely to change the situation? Some think so, one example being the Republic of Palau, which is taking part in a pilot project called ‘Virtual Watch Room’, which is designed to test the system on a small scale before it is launched more widely. The UK is also planning to create a large marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands, whose surveillance would be entrusted to Project Eyes on the Seas. If results from the Virtual Watch Room are positive, Pew Charitable Trusts and Satellite Applications Catapult intend to implement their system on a larger scale, with the ultimate goal of being able to alert any government in the world when an illegal fishing vessel enters one of their ports. In order to do this, they are planning to expand their data sources, using, inter alia, drones and ‘crowdsourcing’ – i.e. using photos taken by members of the general public. It still remains to be seen how this complex system can be made to work properly. Meanwhile, some effort will be needed to persuade all the countries which still tolerate illegal fishing to change their ideas.



By Guillaume Renouard