A lot of media coverage has been devoted in the last weeks to a new monitoring system developed by the Satellite Applications Catapult, a British government-backed innovation centre, in collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts (an American research group) very active in the fisheries sector.
In essence, it is a big-data project, pulling together and cross-checking information on tens of thousands of fishing boats operating around the world. At its heart is what its developers call a virtual watch room, which resembles the control centre for a space mission. A giant video wall displays a map of the world, showing clusters of lighted dots, each representing a fishing boat.
The data used to draw this map come from various sources, the most important of which are ships’ automatic identification systems (AIS). These are like the transponders carried by aircraft. They broadcast a vessel’s identity, position and other information to nearby ships and coastal stations, and also to satellites. An AIS is mandatory for all commercial vessels, fishing boats included, with a gross tonnage of more than 300 mt.
Such boats are also required, in many cases, to carry a second device, known as a VMS (vessel monitoring system). This transmits similar data directly to the authorities who control the waters in which the vessel is fishing, and carrying it is a condition of a boat’s licence to fish there. Enforcement of the AIS regime is patchy, and captains do sometimes have what they feel is a legitimate reason for turning it off, in order not to alert other boats in the area to profitable shoals. But the VMS transmits only to officialdom, so there can be no excuse for disabling it. Switching off either system will alert the watch room to potential shenanigans.
The watch room first filters vessels it believes are fishing from others that are not. It does this by looking at, for example, which boats are in areas where fish congregate. It then tracks these boats using a series of algorithms that trigger an alert if, say, a vessel enters a marine conservation area and slows to fishing speed, or goes “dark” by turning off its identification systems. Operators can then zoom in on the vessel and request further information to find out what is going on. Satellites armed with synthetic-aperture radar can detect a vessel’s position regardless of weather conditions. This means that even if a ship has gone dark, its fishing pattern can be logged. Zigzagging, for example, suggests it is long-lining for tuna. When the weather is set fair, this radar information can be supplemented by high-resolution satellite photographs. Such images mean, for instance, that what purports to be a merchant ship can be fingered as a transshipment vessel by watching fishing boats transfer their illicit catch to it.
As powerful as the watch room is, though, its success will depend on governments, fishing authorities and industry adopting the technology and working together. Those authorities need to make sure AIS and VMS systems are not just fitted, but are used correctly and not tampered with. This should get easier as the cost of the technology falls.
Enforcing the use of an IMO identification number that stays with a ship throughout its life, even if it changes hands or country of registration, is also necessary. An exemption for fishing boats ended in 2013, but the numbering is still not universally applied. Signatories to a treaty agreed in 2009, to make ports exert stricter controls on foreign-flagged fishing vessels, also need to act. Rogue Fishers seek out ports with lax regulations to land illegal catches.
One big problem is that technology can work both ways... Analyzing data from July 2012 to August 2014 Windward (a maritime analytics company) found a mouldering culture of manipulation and deceit in the global maritime industry. They sorted the problems they uncovered into five categories all of which result in “distorting the maritime picture and with it the ability of decision makers to act on valid, reliable data.” The five major categories identified were:
1) Identity Fraud: They found that 1% of ships were transmitting false or stolen identifying marks (IMO numbers, unique numbers assigned to every vessel over a certain size). While this number might seem low, they drew the analogy to airport security, and that this was the equivalent to 1000 people travelling through an international airport using fake identification in a single day. This practice has increased by 30% in the past year.
2) Obscuring Destinations: 59% of vessels failed to report their next port of call.
3) ‘Going Dark’: This was the most common form of AI manipulation whereby a vessel simply turns off their AIS. Windward determined that over one quarter of the vessels worldwide are turning off their AIS at least 10% of the time. To ‘go dark’ operators must physically separate an AIS transmitter from its battery.
4) GPS Manipulation: Windward notes that “AIS transmitters do not provide GPS validation. Therefore, whatever positioning data is ‘fed’ into the device is transmitted as the vessel’s position, regardless of the ship’s actual position.” They recorded a dramatic 59% increase in GPS manipulation between mid- 2013 to mid-2014. Operators must physically manipulate the hardware of the AIS transmitter or physically connect the AIS to a computer and use special software to provide false GPS locations. One example given in an article in Wired noted how a vessels turned off its AIS off the south coast of Mexico, only to have its AIS signal reappear near Chile a short while later, and then in the middle of the Antarctic Continent.
5) Spoofing AIS: The AIS system can be hacked so that ‘ghost ships’ can be introduced where there are not vessels. The implications of all of these various manipulations of AIS are significant, and include threats to safety at sea, international security, undermining the ability to track vessels and monitor areas on the part of governments and other security and financial stakeholders in global maritime trade. IUU fishers are strongly incentivised to manipulate their AIS or to operate without AIS, either of which is illegal, frustrates the jobs of coast guards and law enforcements, and threatens maritime safety.
Hence, the technology to find out the "truth" has similar incentives for those not interested in the truth! As well as the issue that all this is quite costly.
One interesting idea for using the watch room is that major retailers and companies could employ its findings to protect their supply chains, and thus their reputations for not handling what are, in effect, stolen goods. Governments sometimes have reason to drag their feet about enforcing fisheries rules. Supermarkets, though, will generally want to be seen as playing by them. The watch room’s developers say they are already in discussions with a large European supermarket group to do just this.
The watch room will also allow the effective monitoring of marine reserves or no take zones around small island states that do not have the resources to do it for themselves. The first test of this approach could be to regulate a reserve of 836,000 square kilometres around the Pitcairn Islands group, a British territory in the middle of the South Pacific with only a few dozen inhabitants. The Pitcairn reserve, which may be set up later this year, will be one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries. By proving that the watch room can keep an eye on such a remote site, its developers hope other places with similar requirements will be encouraged to get involved.
The watch-room system is, moreover, capable of enlargement as new information sources are developed. One such may be nanosats. These are satellites, a few centimetres across, that can be launched in swarms to increase the number of electronic eyes in the sky while simultaneously reducing costs. Closer to the surface, unmanned drones can do the same. The watch room, then, is a work in progress. But in the game of cat and mouse that enforcing fishing regulations has become, it will give the cat an important advantage.