Illegal Fishing Snared in Network of New Technology

Illegal Fishing Snared in Network of New Technology

Just six weeks after it started, 2015 already is shaping up to be a bad year for vessels fishing illegally—and a good moment for ocean life.

Every time vessel owners skirt the system and plunder global fish populations for their own gain, they harm everything from coastal economies to scientific research, honest industry players to marine ecosystems. Some estimates put the value of this illicit catch at more than US$23 billion annually, or about 1 out of every 5 fish caught. The total price tag, however, likely stands even higher when impairment to the ocean environment is added to the equation.

Illegal fishing might make a vessel owner millions, but the cost of doing business is going up.

During its annual meeting in February in New Zealand, the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization updated its list of vessels identified as having engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Most markets will not do business with these vessels, and if their owners are caught engaging in illegal activities again, they risk losing their catch and possibly even their vessels.

Chile presented evidence to list the Damanzaihao—previously known as the Lafayette, the “world’s largest floating fish factory”—showing that the vessel spent unauthorized time in waters governed by the management organization. In addition, New Zealand came forward with the proof needed to list the Aurora, a trawling vessel flagged to Russia.

The listings come just one month after the government of Palau nabbed a vessel suspected of fishing illegally in its waters. Authorities found piles of illegal shark fins on board along with tuna the vessel did not have license to catch. Palau is home to a shark sanctuary and is working to turn much of its exclusive economic zone (the area of ocean within 200 miles of its shores, over which it has legal control) into a marine reserve that is off-limits to commercial fishing.

These cases demonstrate that a network of new technologies, now monitoring the ocean in search of illegal fishing activity, is proving to be a game changer. Pew and its partners – Satellite Applications Catapult and SkyTruth – are some of the organizations pioneering the application of this technology. The Project Eyes on the Seas platform, for example, analyzes multiple sources of live satellite tracking data and then links to information about a ship’s ownership history and country of registration, providing a dossier of up-to-the-minute data that can alert officials to suspicious vessel movements.

Illegal fishing robs the ocean of life and threatens the food supply and livelihoods of tens of millions of people.   On any given day, nefarious vessels will land a bounty of illegally caught fish, with most of it laundered into the legitimate market. But it’s getting harder to hide the lawbreaking. As monitoring and enforcement drive up the risk of doing business, illegal fishing activities could be priced out of the market. That day may not be far off.