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Satellites Help Keep an Eye on Pirate Fishing


Illegal fishers beware - you're being watched. With space satellite technology, authorities are able to keep closer tabs on seafood pirates, and in some cases, bring them to justice.

Domestic fishing is strictly regulated, but a lot of seafood that Americans eat comes from abroad, and not all of it is legally taken. Foreign fishermen will often knowingly exceed catch limits or trawl restricted areas.

Illegal methods harm fish populations and the environment, and undermine legitimate fishing industries. But perpetrators are difficult to catch, since the massive ocean cannot be sufficiently patrolled. Illegally-caught fish can also change hands through a global supply chain before it reaches the market, making tracking down the fishing company a logistical nightmare.

Satellites, however, give environmentalist groups an eye in the sky that can easily gaze across thousands of miles of ocean with a click of a mouse. One method is to track the automatic identification system signals of ships, which vessels use to avoid collisions at sea. Satellites can pick up on AIS communication broadcasts, giving an idea of the ship's location and where they are headed, as well as the boat's name and home port.

SkyTruth, a company based in West Virginia, built software that uses AIS signals to track 150,000 vessels worldwide. SkyTruth also partners with Project Eyes on the Seas, a nonprofit with Pew Charitable Trusts that uses satellites to monitor fishing activity worldwide. From a virtual watch room, watchers can identify the movement of a vessel which suggest its fishing - usually slow back and forth movements indicating the setting of fishing gear. They can then stand guard over select areas, such as marine reserves or common pirate fishing grounds, to zero in on illegal fishers.

The high-tech technique has already caught pirate fishermen. In January, SkyTruth spotted a fishing boat near Palau, and upon alerting authorities, found it was fishing illegally. Authorities were then sent to intercept it. SkyTruth relayed information about the boat and when authorities boarded it, they found it full of illegally-caught tuna and shark fins.

The system does have its limitations, namely that ship captains have the ability to shut off their AIS tracker, although this itself is illegal for large commercial vessels. Environmentalists are looking to overcome this by using images of ships taken from a satellite's camera and radar. With these tools, environmentalists can spot even more detail, including the type of vessel, activity on the ship deck, and if fishing gear has been cast. They can also see if fish are transferred from one vessel, which pirates sometimes do in order to launder an illegal catch.

Once the fish reaches land though, it's much harder to track where it came from. The federal government, recognizing this issue, is drafting legislation to encourage importers to more closely monitor their seafood chain. The plan is due sometime this spring.

Even with satellites and groundbreaking technology allowing authorities to cast a wider net for illegal fishers, some can still slip through. Until better methods for tracing pirated fish can be developed, environmentalists and authorities are asking buyers and sellers to ask more questions about where their seafood comes from. Space-age technology is influential, but consumers who know when things look fishy will ultimately make the biggest difference.

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Satellites Help Keep an Eye on Pirate Fishing