To conserve the ocean, tech helps — but it’s only a start

Illegal fishing vessel caught inside of the Kawe Marine Protected Area, Raja Ampat, with manta ray carcasses drying on the deck (© Conservation International/photo by Abraham Goram)

The past few years have seen a tidal wave of technology that is revolutionizing ocean conservation. Through satellite imagery and machine learning, new platforms are enabling closer monitoring of fisheries and protected areas.

But technology itself is not a panacea for stopping illegal fishing, nor tracking sustainability within the fiendishly complex seafood industry, according to one expert.

We talked with Jack Kittinger, senior director at Conservation International’s Center for Oceans and an expert on global fisheries, about the intersection of oceans and high tech.

Question: Take us through some of the technological developments with respect to protecting fisheries.

Answer: There’s a cool arms race going on right now. You have platforms like OceanMind, which CI partners with, as well as Global Fishing Watch (GFW), whose technology has been used to bust illegal fishers in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the Pacific — this is huge, because I think there’s only one enforcement boat, and that’s a huge area. Then you have Skytruth, which monitors ship movements, and in some cases has been used to identify illegal fishing boats, resulting in some companies being fined millions of dollars.

As an associate of mine told me, “You used to be able to run and hide; now you can’t.” With these new remote sensing platforms, it’s really getting incredible in terms of what we can do of our enforcement capacity — we’re not only able to identify criminal activity, but now we can be efficient about how we intercept these boats and more successfully, and visibly, impart penalities.

That is a much more targeted use of resources and more efficient than just sending a boat out there to patrol around and hope that they find something. Now you can watch a whole protected area or a whole country’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone). And some countries, like Palau and Indonesia are taking this seriously — they have been very publicly blowing illegal boats up, sending a clear message to would-be violators.

Q: One of the big issues in fishing right now is transshipment, the practice of transferring caught fish from one boat to another. What does this mean and why is it potentially such a big problem?

A: Unfortunately, the vast majority of people have no idea what this even is. Transshipment is a big deal because it enables boats to stay out on the ocean for long periods of time — years in some cases — and is a pathway for illegally caught fish to be laundered before it enters the market, and for slave labor, essentially, to exist on board some of these vessels.

Q: Should transshipment be banned?

A: There’s a lot that needs to be fixed, but I’m not sure that you really can ban it. You have to use policy here to make a dent.

One of the more effective policy instruments out there right now that can really clamp down on this is called the Port State Measures Agreement. It is a global treaty, like the Law of the Sea, and states that agree to it also are required to take measures that in aggregate restrict transshipment. If a boat is landing a catch in a country that has signed the agreement, those boats have to report what that catch is, where it was caught, and other details.

But this is a policy that a country has to adopt, and not all countries have come around to doing so. The good news is that Japan, a major fishing country, adopted it in May of this year. When bigger fishing nations like Japan start to adopt these things, it starts to strengthen them.

In terms of ending transshipment altogether, that’s really hard to do. That said, earlier this year, GFW revealed that they had used machine learning to identify boats that were transshipping, basically making it visible, which is pretty impressive — a big leap forward.

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Q: These technologies seem to have real potential to curb illegal fishing: Why haven’t some of them caught on? 

A: I read about this stuff, and most of the articles I read, they kind of say, Look, all these great technologies are going to change the seascape and do all these cool things.

But one thing I often try to look for, and it’s rare to see, is the adoption curve for these kinds of things. You take these Silicon Valley technology things, and we think, Oh, it’s like an iPhone, and everyone will have it; there will be full traceability for every company, etc.

You have to remember that the global seafood trade is one of the most opaque and byzantine industries on the planet, and so there’s going to be a huge adoption curve for a lot of these innovations. I’ve personally seen it at CI; we’ve implemented these traceability technologies into our fisheries programs, with some success, but the ones that have been successful are the ones we’ve done a lot of work to overcome the adoption curve. That being said, paired with the right approach, many of these technologies can be game-changers.

Q: So how do you actually get over that curve?

A: What a lot of the NGOs are trying to do, us included, is to identify the early adopters for a lot of these things: You start with the first people in, then get it to the mass adoption, then to “This is now just the way it’s done.”

You have to remember that it’s often the case that somebody develops this really cool tool, whether it’s a radar looking at the water, or some bar code that you can label each piece of fish with, and that’s the solution. But from our standpoint, what we do is to look at all the new tools and systems that are out there and determine which is the one most tailored toward our needs, and who has the team in place that wants to work with us on conservation impact. In other words, we start with the problem we want to solve, then we select the general technology that can help solve that, and then the specific provider of that tech — not the other way around.

For example: Costa Rica was trying to figure out the scale of illegal fishing there and how to reduce it. They could have just invested in more enforcement boats, or any of 10 other things. They decided, Let’s figure out how much illegal fishing is actually going on first. They partnered with OceanMind and national authorities to monitor it; out of the three or four remote-sensing fishing monitoring platforms, OceanMind was the best fit for them.

What can sometimes get lost in the adoption curve is that these things are great tools to use, but we can’t lose sight of the specific thing we’re trying to solve.

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