Radar-equipped seabirds won’t stop illegal fishing

Thwarting illegal fishing boats in the open ocean will take more than technology alone

May 29, 2020
Small fishing boats at dock.
With over $23 billion worth of seafood stolen from the world's oceans, stopping illegal vessels is a high priority. [Credit: Kosala Bandara | CC BY 2.0]

How do you spot an illegal fishing boat in the vastness of the southern oceans? It’s a problem so intractable that researchers have turned to absurd-sounding ideas, like using giant seabirds as “ocean sentinels.” By strapping GPS and radar technology to far-flying albatross, researchers hope to better monitor the high seas. 

The albatross study, which its authors insist is not as impractical as it sounds, highlights a huge hole in global attempts to police overfishing: Vast swaths of the ocean are so empty that large, 30 meter-long industrial trawlers can easily slip under the radar and catch millions of pounds of fish without any legal oversight.

Illegal fishing takes many forms including catching more fish than is allowed, fishing for protected species, fishing in prohibited waters and failing to report fish caught. This fishing, which takes place on both the high seas and in national waters, has huge societal and environmental impacts. It can exacerbate overfishing, threaten the livelihood of local fishers and thwart conservation efforts.

“It’s a wicked problem,” says Ben Halpern, a marine ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A lack of cooperation between countries means that international agencies have an incomplete idea of what is happening in many parts of the world, so much so that official estimates of illegal fishing — a $23 billion-a-year problem according to the United Nations — are just “best guesses,” Halpern says.  

The French-led research team turned to albatrosses because of shortcomings in both of the standard tracking systems for fishing vessels: the automatic identification system (AIS), an open satellite system mostly used for navigation, and the vessel monitoring system (VMS), which is typically closed and country-specific. The problem with AIS is that it can be switched off if ships want to remain dark. VMS, on the other hand, cannot be turned off but is run by individual countries that often won’t share tracking data with international fisheries regulators.

Radar detection offers a third possibility. For safety reasons, ships rarely turn off their radar, but those signals can only be detected at much shorter ranges — the loggers on the albatross had a range of just 16 nautical miles. “People were talking about using drones” to monitor the ocean, says Henri Weimerskirch, an ecologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Chizé. But in areas like the southern Indian Ocean, he says, “it’s not possible to use drones because it’s too remote from everywhere.” 

Albatrosses, on the other hand, can fly for thousands of miles over open ocean without stopping and are drawn to trawlers as sources of food. So Weimerskirch and his team decided to see whether the sea birds could carry the necessary detection equipment. 

Turns out, they could. For six months, the French-Australian team deployed 169 albatrosses carrying tracking equipment. During that time, the seabirds detected more than 5,000 radar signals from large swaths of the southwestern Indian Ocean all the way to New Zealand. The experiment showed that both national and international waters were littered with ships gone dark: 36.9% of vessels in international waters and 25.8% of boats in national waters had switched off their AIS. 

Weimerskirch says his albatross method is cost effective and adaptable. A 125,000-square-mile zone could be patrolled with just 50 birds, he says, at a total cost of approximately $64,000 per month. The biggest issue, Weimerskirch says, is getting access to the remote islands where the birds would be released. 

Skeptics such as Antonia Leroy, a fisheries policy officer at the World Wildlife Fund, see the idea as impractical, and a potential risk to already-vulnerable albatross populations. If fishers know these birds are monitoring their illicit activities, they might shoot the albatross, she says. That’s a problem because 15 out of 22 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Albatross are already vulnerable to being caught up in fishing boat longlines, says Leroy, and making these birds potential targets would run counter to conservationist goals.

There are more effective ways to police the ocean, agrees Nate Miller, a senior data scientist at Global Fishing Watch, an international non-profit focused on vessel tracking and data collection. Better technology is expanding how well we can monitor fishing vessels, he says. Satellites are getting cheaper, making it more cost-effective to monitor larger sections of the ocean by revamping the tech we already have — Global Fishing Watch now uses light-detecting satellites, for example, to spot boats illicitly out at night.

Regardless of innovative strategies and technological strides, the priority should be pushing governments to share the private VMS data they already collect, says Miller. “I think technology helps support the policy,” he says, “but I don’t think you can solve all these problems with technology alone.”

He adds that if all countries agreed to share their VMS data, it would be an enormous breakthrough. Open tracking information would make it possible to cross-reference VMS with AIS data, along with other types of satellite mapping, to create more comprehensive maps of who is out there on the high seas and who has purposefully turned off their AIS transponders.

Even if technology identifies potential sneaks, though, many coastal nations don’t have the resources to take action against them or are simply unwilling to do so, says Jaemin Lee, a law professor at Seoul National University who studies illegal fishing. He says some conservation-minded countries plan to go through the World Trade Organization for enforcement. So far, their plans have been delayed as the next WTO meeting, set for Kazakhstan in June, was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Trade agreements have legal mechanisms to twist the arms of the states,” says Lee. “Soon, we will have workable, manageable legal norms.”

The need for action gets more urgent by the day. About 60 million people worldwide are involved in fisheries and aquaculture, and they’re chasing fewer and fewer fish. One-third of all commercial fish species are now overfished – up from just 10% in 1974, according to the United Nations’ most recent data. Black market fishing is responsible for an estimated 20% of the overall annual take, according to a PLOS One study, and climate change is ratcheting up the pressure: UN models show that greenhouse gas emissions could reduce the ocean’s total fish catch potential by more than 12% by 2050. 

We cannot let the enormity of the task daunt us from working towards reducing overfishing, says Halpern, the marine ecologist. The ocean may be vast, he says, but its contents are not an infinite resource. 

About the Author

Hannah Seo

Hannah Seo is a science journalist based in New York City and the editor-in-chief of Scienceline. She loves writing about the intersections of science, tech and culture. As an ethnically Korean Canadian raised in Qatar, she also considers herself an international nomad.


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