Pew Joins With Top European Satellite Innovators to Fight Illegal Fishing

Pinpointing pirate fishers from space will help curb a crime that harms economies and the environment

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For a long time, most authorities have had to rely on guesswork and luck to find the clandestine illegal fishing vessels that ply the world’s waters. But with a new collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and a satellite technology organization in the United Kingdom, coast guard and other fishing enforcement officers will soon have modern tools to fight a serious problem.

Pew is joining with Oxford-based Satellite Application Catapult, which specializes in developing satellite-based solutions to real-world problems, to create a vessel-tracking system. It will merge information from satellite sources with other data to pinpoint the location of suspect vessels, and show vessel name, identification number, fishing license details, history, and more.

That information can be made available to coast guard officers, port officials, and fisheries managers to help narrow their search for pirate fishing activity, enabling authorities to find, stop, and prosecute criminal fishers far more effectively than now.

The system will also allow retailers and the vast majority of commercial fishers who operate within the law to show buyers where, when, and how their fish were caught. The German grocery giant Metro Group has expressed interest in using the platform, as has Frequentz, a Silicon Valley-based data warehousing company that specializes in tracking food from source to consumer.

“Illegal fishers rely on anonymity at sea and often even when they come to port to sell their stolen catch,” said Karen Sack, who heads Pew’s international oceans work. “The Catapult tool will make it much harder for lawbreakers to hide and far easier for authorities to find them.”

Worldwide, illegal and unreported fishing accounts for up to 26 million metric tons of fish annually, or up to 1,800 pounds of wild-caught fish stolen from the seas every second. That haul is worth up to US$23.5 billion a year. The Catapult program will play an integral part in stopping pirate fishing and help protect coastal and regional economies that depend on healthy fisheries.

“Bringing Catapult’s new tool to bear in the fight to end illegal fishing is just one step in rescuing our oceans from the range of threats they face,” said Sack. She cited a report, released June 24 from the independent Global Ocean Commission, which calls for a host of marine conservation measures, including mandatory identification numbers for fishing vessels on the high seas; universal ratification of key international agreements, such as the Port State Measures Agreement; and a high seas “regeneration zone” where industrial fishing would be banned until fish populations replenish. “Pew calls on the international community to come together and take the critical action necessary for ocean protection. Together, we can rebuild the resilience, abundance, and diversity of marine life needed to sustain healthy ecosystems, both in national waters and on the high seas.”

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