Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a huge global problem, with some experts suggesting that as many as 11 million tons of fish are caught each year by pirate vessels. And it’s a problem that has far reaching implications, responsible for everything from further strangling already impoverished economies to sparking conflict between neighbors.
However, the world’s honest fisherman have found an unlikely ally in the innovators of Silicon Valley, as the brains behind tech companies such as Google set their sights on finding ways to help tackle the issue. A newly launched satellite-based surveillance system from Google allows the world’s oceans to be monitored from on high; Global Fishing Watch, launched in conjunction with non-profits SkyTruth and Oceana has the power to scour the seas searching for those casting their nets where they shouldn’t be.
And solutions aren’t just being developed for the skies but for the seas as well. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), has launched a contest on crowdsourcing site Kaggle to find a team able to write software to identify specific species of fish. Its Australian arm jointly won the 2016 Google Impact Challenge for Australia for its FishFace Sustainable fishing technology, which, as you might expect, recognizes if not fishes’ faces, then their species. The Nature Conservancy has also launched a pilot project that has to date equipped 24 boats with cameras and GPS devices to electronically monitor fishing devices in the waters of the island nation of Palau, which recently created a national marine sanctuary in its 230,000 square mile seas.
Of course, all of these technologies have their limitations. Global Fishing Watch, for example, relies on trackers that can be very easily switched off by vessels wishing to remain incognito, thereby negating much of its power. Similarly, while the GPS technology used by TNC is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, they still require human eyes to spend many hours manually trawling through footage in order to be effective.
Nonetheless, this is progress and could have the potential to be transformative to the economies of many nations.
For illegal fishing is a big business that causes even bigger problems for many of the world’s poorest nations. West African countries, for example, find their tables robbed of food two times over by illegal fisherman: they are denied both an importance source of sustenance that should be easily accessible off their shores, and the profits than can be made from selling it. A report by the Overseas Development Institute and Spanish investigative journalists porCausa, for example, suggests that if governments in West African nations such as Senegal, Mauritania, Liberia, Ghana and Sierra Leone tackled illegal fishing by foreign commercial vessels in their waters, they could generate billions of dollars in extra wealth and create around 300,000 new jobs.
But tackling illegal fishing is certainly not easy. And one of the main issues is that solutions to the problem –whether high tech or low tech – do not come cheap. African nations can’t afford to compete with the existing technology used by illegal fisherman, and nor can they easily invest in the funds required to stop them. Mozambique, for example, is locking horns with its creditors after EMATUM, a state agency, used government-backed bonds to buy several patrol boats to safeguard its coast. With a coastline of more than 2,300 km that is home to some of Africa’s richest tuna grounds in Africa, the country was unable to fend off the many illegal fishing boats scouring its waters. According to a recent count, only 1 out of the 130 boats operating in its territorial waters was Mozambican.
IUU is not just an African issue either. It also plagues the waters of Asia, where the practice, especially in the highly disputed South China Sea, risks sparking conflict on shore. Indonesia, for example, routinely sets illegal fishing boats on fire, while South Korea has been taking pot shots at Chinese fishing vessels.
Despite the fact that the impact of illegal fishing is reverberating through the politics and economies of countries all over the globe, it’s actually political and economic considerations which are preventing the issue from being tackled quite as vigorously as it might be. A forceful approach to the Chinese vessels infiltrating the waters of Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, is tempered by fears around being drawn into the wider South China Sea dispute.
And even though China is responsible for plundering so much of its waters, African nations cannot risk rocking the boat too much when it comes to their relationship with the communist country. China turns to Africa for the raw materials to power its economic powerhouse and is now Africa’s biggest trading partner, regularly importing Angolan oil, Zambian copper and Guinean bauxite. It is also building infrastructure on the continent, such as the coastal railway in Nigeria and has opened an overseas naval base in Djibouti. Its fishermen’s actions may not be those of a friend to Africa, but Africa certainly can’t afford to make an enemy of China right now.
So with a political solution to the problem no closer, could technology hold the key? Perhaps. Even if it can’t stop illegal fishing happen, it can certainly help us to better identify the scale of the problem and the hot spots that need addressing most urgently.