Is Mass Surveillance the Future of Conservation?

It’s hard to catch illegal fishing in international waters—unless you turn to drones and birds strapped with spying devices.

You can just barely see the tracker on this bird spy's back.
You can just barely see the tracker on this bird spy’s back.
Alexandre Corbeau

The high seas are probably the most lawless place left on Earth. They’re a portal back in time to the way the world looked for most of our history: fierce and open competition for resources and contested territories. Pirating continues to be a way to make a living.

It’s not a complete free-for-all—most countries require registration of fishing vessels and enforce environmental protocols. Cooperative agreements between countries oversee fisheries in international waters. But the best data available suggests that around 20 percent of the global seafood catch is illegal. This is an environmental hazard because unregistered boats evade regulations meant to protect marine life. And it’s an economic problem for fishermen who can’t compete with boats that don’t pay for licenses or follow the (often expensive) regulations. In many developing countries, local fishermen are outfished by foreign vessels coming into their territory and stealing their stock.

Time is running out to impose order on the situation: Thirty percent of fisheries are on the verge of collapse and the number of people reliant on fish protein is over 1 billion, and growing.
But doing it will be no easy task. The high seas (the very romantic, technical term for international waters) encompass 45 percent of the planet, and more than 4 million fishing vessels are on the water at any given time. So far the best efforts of navy fleets and coast guards around the world have been unable to keep up.

But Henri Weimerskirch, a French ecologist, has a cheap, low-impact way to monitor thousands of square miles a day in real time: He’s getting birds to do it (a project first reported by Hakai). Specifically, albatross, which have a 10-foot wingspan and can fly around the world in 46 days. The birds naturally congregate around fishing boats, hoping for an easy meal, so Weimerskirch is equipping them with GPS loggers that also have radar detection to pick up the ship’s radar (and make sure it is a ship, not an island) and a transmitter to send that data to authorities in real time. If it works, this should help in two ways: It will provide some information on the extent of the unofficial fishing operation in the area, and because the logger will transmit their information in real time, the data will be used to notify French navy ships in the area to check out suspicious boats.

His team is getting ready to deploy about 80 birds in the south Indian Ocean this November.
The loggers attached around the birds’ legs are about the shape and size of a Snickers. The south Indian Ocean is a shared fishing zone, and nine countries, including France (courtesy of several small islands it claims ownership of, a vestige of colonialism), manage it together. But there are big problems with illegal fishing in the area, especially of the Patagonian toothfish (better known to consumers as Chilean seabass).

The bird spies join an arsenal of technologies being used and developed around the world to catch illegal and unregistered fishing boats. The main tool right now is satellite surveillance, which has provided important big-picture data. But it relies on ships having signaling systems on board—which many unregistered vessels don’t, and which can be easily switched off to provide cover for illegal activity. The information is also relatively low-resolution and only updated every few hours.

In the Seychelles, local fishermen have been asking for additional protection for years, as Chinese and other foreign vessels often encroach on their waters. They will take photos of the boats and report them to the coast guard, but because they didn’t come from officials, their images can’t be used in court. The coast guard often can’t get to the scene fast enough—and even if they do, they’re vulnerable to bribes.

This fall, as Weimerskirch’s birds begin patrolling the Indian Ocean, the waters around the Republic of Seychelles will come under new scrutiny. The government is partnering with FishGuard, a project developed by the drone company ATLAN Space and the nonprofit GRID-Arendal. The coast guard will control drones for two modes of operation: targeted missions and surveillance. In targeted use, the coast guard will send them to check out a suspicious boat that’s been previously identified. In surveillance mode, the drones will patrol a set area, and their artificial intelligence system will identify and report boats that match a registry of unregistered and illegal vessels.

The birds and drones have different talents. Birds can go farther from shore and handle stormy weather, and tracking them has the bonus of providing useful ecological data. Drones can be sent to a specific location on demand, and the images they capture provide more information than the bird loggers’ location and radar tracking. But they are part of the same phenomenon: ever more targeted, intimate surveillance of the oceans. Not everyone thinks this is such a great idea.

Drones don’t differentiate between illegal and legal fishers—it’s just blanket surveillance, points out Hilde Toonen, a Dutch expert on environmental policy who studies fishing enforcement from an anthropological perspective. “The technology kind of makes them all potential villains,” she said.

“We’re highly wary of the cavalier application of new monitoring approaches which may not be necessary, because often the costs are borne by fishermen,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the U.S.-based Institute for Fisheries Resources, a research and advocacy group run by fishermen that works to preserve fishery resources. He points to the example of a fishing regulation imposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Fishery Management Council for groundfish in 2011, which required that all vessels have a human observer on board monitoring their catch. This has been so expensive that it’s threatened to price out small vessels completely, so the council is planning a move to video monitoring instead.

Toonen and Oppenheimer agree the key to success in fishing surveillance technology will be involving the fishermen.

“The best thing to do when it comes to operations at sea is to be very transparent,” said Oppenheim. “The last thing that a fisherman wants to see is a drone buzzing over his boat when he doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Weimerskirch learned this for himself as the team prepared to launch the bird spies. His original plan was to have the data picked up by the birds be transmitted live and available on a public website, but the fishermen protested—they didn’t want their competitors to be able to see their prized fishing locations, an issue that hadn’t occurred to Weimerskirch. The plan was quickly changed.

In the Seychelles, FishGuard has been mostly met with positive sentiment so far. Valentin Yemelin, who directs GRID-Arendal’s environmental crime program, expects that there will inevitably be some resistance to their work. But so far, he hasn’t encountered it.

Fisheries are so valuable and precarious that scientists, fishermen, and conservationists all seem ready to get behind anything they see as leveling the playing field to achieve their goals. According to the U.N., about 33 percent of wild fisheries are being harvested at unsustainable levels, up from only 10 percent in 1974.

Of course, the biggest problem with trying to stop illegal fishing is the same, no matter how advanced technology becomes—the ocean encompasses the whole world. Countries, scientists, and nonprofits around the world are all working on their own toward the same goal.

“The biggest thing in my mind is yet to happen and that’s really bringing all of these standalone technologies together,” says Michele Kuruc, the vice president of ocean policy at the World Wildlife Fund.* “That is just in its infancy.”

So far, there’s no obvious way to consolidate their efforts, or decide how to share and manage data.

But it’s a big change taking place. For millennia, what’s happened at sea has been mysterious and out of sight. Illegal activities could take place in broad daylight. Entire airplanes could be lost forever. Now, the days of the unobserved ocean are rapidly drawing to a close. Maybe bird spies, drones, and satellites will be enough to finally do what governments have been trying to do for centuries—tame the high seas—and eventually even save the fish.

Correction, Sept. 18, 2018: This article originally misspelled Michele Kuruc’s first name.