The four key tuna fisheries of the Western and Central Pacific have been independently verified as sustainable, which is a great position to be in for Pacific Island nations.
But keeping those fisheries sustainable, particularly in the face of climate change and increasing demand for fish as the population grows, requires careful management – and an innovative approach to using new technology.
The World Wildlife Fund’s Western and Central Pacific Tuna Programme Manager, Alfred ‘Bubba’ Cook, has played a key role in technological innovation in fisheries management, from helping develop electronic reporting platforms, to exploring the role of artificial intelligence in tackling IUU (illegal, unreported, unregulated) fishing.
Cook outlined to TunaPacific some of the key areas of innovation that are aiding in the effort to preserve and effectively manage these precious marine resources.
Satellite remote sensing
While all fishing vessels operating in the Pacific are required to carry a transponder that tracks their movements, illegal fishers can simply turn off their transponder and ‘go dark’ to the authorities.
Patrol boats and aircraft still play an important role in monitoring, fisheries control and surveillance operations, but now satellites to serve as a “queuing” tool that allows those tackling IUU to make more efficient use of those other assets.
But the use of satellite technology has made it difficult to hide. A growing number of satellites have coverage of the Pacific with cameras capable of taking high resolution images, and software able to detect, identify and track vessels.
Satellites also contain synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) sensors. These send a radar ping down to Earth, with the information collected on the surface of the ocean bouncing back to the satellite to create radar images. These can be used to detect vessels at night or in cloudy conditions when visual identification isn’t possible.
Another form of satellite remote sensing is visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS) which can detect light emitted from vessels at night. It may not be able to detect the identity of the vessel, but algorithms are being used to piece together vessel movements which can lead to identification.
“Satellite remote sensing is able to detect activity at sea that would otherwise be invisible,” explains Cook.
“I think that’s played a really prominent role, particularly in addressing things like transshipment, unlicensed vessels fishing in particular areas, or even various close contacts of vessels where there might be, for instance, transshipment occurring between longline vessels, which is patently illegal.
“So I think that’s going to play an increasingly important role as a tool that countries can use to address IUU fishing.”
There are a number of tools that can be used to identify and track activity on the water.
They include standard active transmission tools, such as the vessel monitoring system (VMS) which was designed for fisheries management, as well as the automated identification system (AIS), which primarily serves to avoid collisions at sea.
“There are additional technologies coming available that incorporate radio frequency detection,” says Cook.
“Starboard Maritime is a company here in New Zealand that’s been playing a prominent role in the Pacific.”
Keywords can be identified from marine radio traffic and run through computer algorithms to yield useful intelligence about vessel activities. Again, satellites are drawn on to detect radio frequency emissions. Australian company Hawkeye 360 uses remote sensing satellites with radio frequency sensors to detect illegal fishing in support of the FFA’s IUU prevention efforts.
Says Cook: “This level of transparency is creating a responsibility on the fishing industry and accountability in a way that has previously been unavailable.”
Another useful technology is ‘radar harvesting’ which Australia’s CSIRO has been developing for use in tackling IUU.
As the CSIRO explains: “We can harvest the navigation radar data from cooperating vessels to provide free maritime surveillance information.
“The system can be installed on a wide range of vessels at a low cost. It can also integrate with fisheries monitoring systems to provide managers with free, real-time, and high-resolution surveillance data for their fishing grounds.”
Data sharing and analysis
A large amount of fisheries and vessel data are now being gathered through passive and active means across the Pacific. Efforts are now underway to collate the data so they can inform IUU prevention efforts and improve fisheries management overall.
“Rather than having a person scrolling through reams and reams of data to identify whether a vessel came in close contact with another vessel, artificial intelligence is able to do it almost instantaneously. And that’s a huge leap in terms of the capacity of countries to be able to identify and detect IUU activity at sea,” says Cook.
Software drawing on algorithms is also able to identify current and historic patterns of vessel movement that allows aircraft or patrol boats to narrow in their surveillance efforts and take a closer look at activity occurring offshore.
AI-powered monitoring, control and surveillance
Cook sees huge potential in AI to make sense of the big data generated by the fisheries industry and the various agencies and organisations that manage and monitor fisheries in the Pacific.
But with so much buzz around AI this year, he’s keen to move beyond some of the “pie in the sky” claims about what the technology is capable of.
“We should be taking a more pragmatic and more measured approach to looking at what it actually is, what it can do and what it can deliver in a fisheries context,” he says.
He sees AI as a “force multiplier” for current efforts to make sense of data, with machine learning capable of improving its performance and potentially answering questions “you haven’t even thought to ask”.
“These new developments in technology, especially things like AI, are going to play a more important role moving into the future.”
While satellite technology is incredibly useful to monitor vessel movements and activity, cameras are increasingly being deployed on fishing boats.
“That will tell us exactly what’s happening on board those vessels with respect to bycatch or even human and labour rights on board those vessels. And that’s going to play a huge role,” says Cook.
Cameras not only have the ability to record all fishing activity, but image recognition technology can accurately identify the size and species of fish, helping in compliance monitoring.