Every day thousands of fishing vessels take to sea, chart a course for fertile fishing grounds, and disappear over the horizon. Out of sight, the majority of these vessels fish within the confines of the law, catching permitted species within allotted quotas. But for a consequential minority, the remoteness of the open ocean provides a cover for illicit fishing activities that harm ecosystems, economies, and human lives.
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, known as IUU fishing, captures 1,800 pounds of seafood from the ocean every second. This illicit market is worth up to $23.5 billion each year and accounts for one in five wild caught fish.
Each letter of the IUU acronym is harmful to the ocean. Illegal fishing inside exclusion zones and marine reserves harms ecosystems and species that need protection. Unregulated fishing on the high seas degrades marine food webs and causes of overfishing. Unreported fish landings diminish the accuracy of scientific stock assessments and decrease overall fishery health.
IUU fishing takes a human toll as well. The practice harms honest fishermen and coastal communities by depriving them of vital food sources and employment opportunities. To make matters worse, the IUU fishing fleet is associated with other illicit activities, including human trafficking and weapons and drug smuggling.
But thanks to the power of innovative tools that use satellites and algorithms to detect suspicious fishing boat movements and locations, the tide is beginning to turn against IUU fishing.
One such tool is Global Fishing Watch, the product of a partnership between Oceana, Skytruth, and Google that allows governments, NGOs, and ordinary citizens to view the location of fishing vessels around the world with the click of a button. Launched at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference in Washington, D.C., Global Fishing Watch uses satellites to intercept navigation information from the Automatic Identification System transponders aboard ships. As data on the identity, position, speed, and trajectory of vessels around the world is collected, an algorithm analyzes the movement patterns of thousands of vessels to detect fishing activity on the high seas. Similar satellite monitoring programs such as the Pew Charitable Trust’s Project Eyes on the Sea have been launched to detect fishing activity inside remote marine protected areas.
(Video Credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts).
By overlaying the movement patterns of fishing vessels with other data layers, such as the boundaries of marine reserves and international borders, these platforms allow users to pinpoint suspicious fishing activity in near real time, bringing much needed transparency to the seafood supply chain.
Both programs are part of the Safe Ocean Network, a collaborative initiative launched at the 2015 Our Ocean Conference. The network brings together 45 governments and private organizations to catalyze global action against IUU fishing; it has jumpstarted more than 40 IUU-related projects worth more than $82 million. Using a variety of measures that include satellite monitoring networks, high seas fishing patrols, mobile applications, and policy overhauls, these projects improve seafood traceability, enable effective law enforcement, and educate consumers about the origin of their seafood.
In addition to establishing the Safe Ocean Network, the U.S. government has taken steps to address IUU fishing by issuing an action plan in response to recommendations from the Presidential Task Force on Combatting IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud. The action plan lists fifteen recommendations for tackling IUU fishing, including bolstering seafood customs and enforcement, improving seafood labeling rules, and maintaining IUU fishing as a diplomatic priority.
Thanks in large part to U.S. leadership, the international community is gaining momentum to address one of the largest global black markets and a critical threat to the ocean. Maintaining this leadership is crucial if recent progress is to continue and accelerate.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.