Ocean Security and the World’s Largest Crime Scene / by Francisco Blaha

The Stimson Center produced a brief report, as a snapshot of a broader and evolving body of work aimed at safeguarding our oceans and combating a wide range of natural resource crimes and challenges.

Illustration from my EU market access book

Illustration from my EU market access book

And while in my opinion, is a bit tinted with the expected American exceptionalism (particularly idea #3) and a focus on MPAs (Marine Protected Areas), it does provides an interesting set of technology recommendations. I quote them below the intro. (If you were to replace MPA for a wider concept of fisheries management and eCDS, they still make sense).


Ocean security is important for conservation, but reasons for conserving our natural maritime heritage go far beyond its breathtaking splendor and endangered species. About one billion people rely on the world’s oceans for fish as their primary source of animal protein. An estimated 880 million people rely on it directly and indirectly for their livelihoods. Rising economic powers such as China have seen fish consumption rates increase 6 percent annually on average since 1990. As fishing fleets deplete stocks and expand operations to every corner of the ocean, global demand for their catch only continues to grow alongside increasing populations worldwide. Some estimates even indicate that local and commercial fish populations have been cut in half since 1970 and countries like China worry that a shortage of fish could trigger societal instability among its growing population. This is one of the reasons why Beijing is heavily subsidizing its 2000-strong distant-water fishing fleet — the largest in the world — that is often found exploiting rich fishing grounds around the world.

There is also a growing body of evidence suggesting that our oceans are the world’s largest crime scene due to rampant illegal fishing that is estimated to represent 20 percent of all catch worldwide and represent a yearly dollar value upwards of $23 billion. Indeed, the pillage of the seas’ resources represents a threat to vital U.S. and global economic and security interests.

Additionally, conflict over fishing grounds in Southeast Asia is escalating in a region many see as on the verge of serious armed conflict. For example, Indonesia has blown up over 170 foreign fishing boats caught illegally fishing in its waters over the past two years. Nearly 5,000 Chinese vessels have been apprehended fishing illegally in South Korean waters. Although the Chinese navy has only been involved to a limited extent, some fishing ports have increased their “maritime militias,” or armed civilian vessels.

Technology Recommendations

Technology is playing a large role in developing strategy to combat illegal fishing and safeguard MPAs. Many innovative and unique technologies have arisen to meet the challenge of illegal fishing — from satellite technology and “smart” buoys, to unmanned surface vessels and aerial vehicles (drones). Yet, despite much energy around creating technology to combat crimes on the seas, there are some key takeaways about this burgeoning space that if applied would help skyrocket its real and immediate impact on ocean protection.

Everyone is innovating, but few are integrating

There is no shortage of technological solutions to enforce the maritime domain. Marine enforcement technology for maritime domain awareness, monitoring, control and surveillance and conservation purposes more broadly has exploded over the last few decades. So much so, in fact, that the technology itself is outpacing our ability to successfully integrate it into MPA enforcement systems. The gap is not one of technology innovation, but rather of integration. In the years to come, the force multiplier will be to integrate satellite data with mobile technology, unmanned systems, radars, enforcement buoys and the like to protect a given MPA. As such, the guiding principle is innovation through integration and finding new value for what already exists.

Surveillance is not deterrence

Deterrence, the act of preventing a particular act or behavior from happening, is critical to the success of any enforcement system. For deterrence to work, it requires a number of ingredients, including defined rules of law, tools for monitoring lawbreakers, and credible threats of interception and prosecution.

The conservation and development communities have long struggled with implementing effective deterrence to protect MPAs, often citing operating environments with low capacity and high corruption as key challenges. However, the main problem is not that of the operating environment, it is a misunderstanding of the tools needed for successful deterrence. Surveillance technology, the category into which most MPA enforcement technology falls, including satellite imagery, acoustic sensors, and onboard observation technology, does not alone create deterrence. It must be accompanied with enforcement technology - tools for interception and prosecution - to effectively deter criminals.

Work with what you’ve got, not with what you want

Technology is only as good as its user, a fact on display in many MPA enforcement technology projects that have tried, and failed, to implement advanced technology for oceans protection. All too often, these technology projects fail to evaluate the existing technological capabilities of a given MPA enforcement system which results in the transmission of technology ill-suited to the realities on the ground.

Instead of deploying the most advanced technological solutions – underwater drones, high definition satellite imagery and top of the line aircraft - to protect MPAs, capacity builders must engage in bottom up approaches that meet users where they are, technologically speaking.

For an MPA with limited resources and personnel, the first step in increasing the capacity of rangers to enforce the MPA may be a simple mobile app to download on their cell phones into which they can track their patrols, any sightings of unregistered vessels and fish population data, for example. While simpler technology than drones and radars, customized solutions that build on existing levels of capacity lay the groundwork for robust technological systems without requiring huge investments of resources or training for the rangers. “Low tech, bottom up technology holds the key to gradually and sustainably building capacity from the ground up to protect MPAs.

Find honest technology brokers

The world is seemingly at the precipice of a new era of safeguarding MPAs and combating illegal fishing. This era, however, will consist of a long journey to reach our goals for oceans protection and MPA enforcement. Yet too many technology projects are led or influenced by short term support dictated by election cycles, donor support or private sector companies with outdated business models.

Technology plans are often designed for short term fixes instead of longer term solutions without interoperability in mind. Part of the solution to this challenge is to identify professionals who understand sensor fusion and longer term technology integration. They exist at universities around the world and are excellent honest technology brokers when designing and deploying technology projects that can outlive their makers.

Technology needs to be multi-use

To avoid duplication of efforts and be successfully integrated into the existing enforcement systems of a given country, technology for MPA enforcement must be able to be used for multiple purposes. Multi-use technology saves resources and increases partnerships and buy-in from adjacent communities. In countries with piracy or human and drug maritime smuggling operations, technology that combats illegal fishing must also be connected to and used for combating these additional threats. In those gathering meteorological data, enforcement buoys can double as observation buoys that gather and report information on water temperature.

Technology that can be customized to serve multiple uses is much more valuable than “silver bullet” technology that is designed to only do one specific task.

Making the wrong conclusion from “failure”

Some technology projects in the illegal fishing world are failing. Yet within those failures are important lessons. In the technology world, these attempts would be called prototyping or a step toward success, in which failure, to some degree, is expected. Relatively new to technology, however, the oceans community is struggling to come to the right conclusions about their technology failures, and is missing opportunities to learn and share lessons learned from them.

In one example of such a “failure,” a partnership between NGOs, military and the private sector formed to implement a high technology solution to combat both illegal fishing and maritime drug trafficking in a remote MPA. It was a pioneer in both its innovative partnership structure and in its technological design.

Initially lauded as a success, the project experienced difficulties likely due to a combination of its remote location, a new partnership with unfamiliar actors, and the fact that it is truly a prototype technology for what it is being asked to do.

Instead of discussing the challenges facing this project openly, however, some in the oceans community speak of its failure as an open secret from which there is nothing to be learned.

The project itself holds interesting information for future technology projects. First of all, the partnership between private and public sector bodies appears to have been a success. The same goes for that between the conservation and military communities. These partnerships are monumental for an issue on which progress, as discussed in the policy recommendations above, is stymied by artificial silos and a “once burned twice shy” attitude about working across sectors.

The desire for immediate success of MPA enforcement technology projects hinders the ability of the oceans community to draw the right conclusions about successes or failures, and slows down the institutional learning process. In the above example, the “failed” project shows a successful understanding of the need for cross-sector partnerships and multi-use, customized technology. This story needs to be heard even when the technology fails or is temporarily struggling.