Tech vs Poachers: The Role of Technology in Sea Law Enforcement

Efforts to shut down illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing have been aided by leaps in technological advancement, explained by Captain Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd Global Director of Campaigns. Image: Shutterstock / T. Schneider
Tech vs Poachers: The Role of Technology in Sea Law Enforcement
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Two years ago, I boarded a shrimp trawler in the Gulf of Guinea together with Gabon’s Minister of Fisheries. It was licensed to fish in the waters of the Central African country of Gabon, with its position regularly transmitted to the Gabonese authorities through its Vessel Management System. This was not a “dark vessel”, one of those infamous fishing vessels that turns their mandatory transponder off in order to elude and evade fisheries officers. 

Together, we watched when the trawl net was hauled out of the sea. As the catch emptied out onto the deck, we saw very few shrimp. The fisheries officers who accompanied us estimated that just 0.3% of the catch was shrimp. The other 99.7% was the bycatch of other marine wildlife, most of which was thrown overboard dead. I’ll never forget the sight because it was the literal equivalent of killing tens of thousands of sea creatures for one single shrimp cocktail.  

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The officers determined that the mesh size of the fishing nets was undersized, and so the vessel was placed under arrest and escorted to port for detention pending a full investigation. Its two sister ships were also instructed to return to port, effectively suspending the entire shrimp fishery off the coast of Gabon. 

Technology is revolutionising fisheries management and enforcement, providing real-time positional information on fishing vessels.

Technology is revolutionising fisheries management and enforcement, providing real-time positional information on fishing vessels through vessel tracking systems that are required by fisheries authorities. But these systems rely on units installed onboard the fishing vessels—and they depend on the operators not turning them off. 

The success of these tracking systems largely depends on whether law enforcement has the necessary resources, like patrol boats, to investigate and stop these fishing vessels if they turn off their tracking devices and go 'dark'.

Picking up the trail of dark vessels is satellite imagery, which can capture vessels even if they’ve shut off their transponders. But while the satellites can alert the authorities to the presence of a suspect vessel, they can’t identify them. For that, there’s no replacement for good-old fashioned police work. Somebody has to intercept the target and read the name on the hull. 

Efforts to shut down illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing have been aided by leaps in technological advancement, but the innovations cannot solve the problem on their own. They are force multipliers that must be integrated into traditional naval patrols at sea.   

It’s a source of frustration for developing countries to know -- through vessel tracking solutions -- that there are unidentified fishing vessels operating in their waters. They can see them light up the computer screens of their monitoring centers. But they are not able to bring them to justice. Economic resources are stretched, and there may not be sufficient ocean-going patrol boats available to intercept these suspect vessels.

Sea Shepherd Global’s solution to this has been to provide civilian offshore patrol vessels to coastal and island States around the African continent. We provide the ship and the operating crew (the deck and engineering officers), and generous donors from around the world provide the fuel. 

Stationed on board our ships are the fisheries officers, navy sailors, park rangers and police investigators from the host country: the people with the authority to board, inspect and arrest vessels for illegal fishing and other fisheries crimes. Together, we patrol. We bring policing authorities to the scene of the crime, one that’s often first identified through technological tools. 

Working in partnership with eight African countries, we’ve assisted law enforcement authorities with the arrest of 85 vessels to date. That includes that shrimp trawler in Gabon. Measuring the mesh size was only possible by getting a law enforcement detachment on board. The horrific discrepancy between shrimp caught and bycatch is not something that can be seen by satellite.  

In the here and now, shutting down IUU fishing still requires a good ship, steel handcuffs and the person who slaps them on the wrists of the poachers destroying our oceans.

In 2018, we assisted the Liberian Coast Guard to board a vessel licensed to fish for tuna using longline fishing gear in the waters of Liberia, a country in West Africa. But once on board, the Liberian Coast Guard determined that there wasn’t a single tuna or longline hook on board. The vessel was using deep-sea gillnets to slaughter endangered sharks for the production of shark liver oil. The fishers were killing 66,000 sharks per month. The vessel was placed under arrest. 

What did the vessels in Gabon and Liberia have in common? They were both being monitored electronically; their digital signatures never raised any suspicion and yet they were both breaking the law. I wish that technology could end IUU fishing today. It will get us a step closer tomorrow. But all of this new intelligence must be actionable.  

In the here and now, shutting down IUU fishing still requires a good ship, steel handcuffs and the person who slaps them on the wrists of the poachers destroying our oceans.




Read more in the OECD report - Eliminating government support to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing

This report assesses how to stop illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing benefitting from government support. Based on a survey of OECD countries and partner economies participating in the work of the OECD Fisheries Committee, it recommends actions that can be undertaken by countries to maximise the chances of excluding individuals and companies with links to IUU fishing from government support, and to minimise the risk that such support benefits IUU fishing ex ante, given the inherent difficulty to take action ex post. Eight specific recommendations are presented.

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Go to the profile of Daniel Atakpa
7 months ago

Good and commendable effort. Well done. Keep it up please