Emerging technologies offer fresh promise to sustainable fisheries

More than three billion people worldwide depend upon fish for a fifth of their protein intake. But fisheries are under extreme pressure. A third of species monitored by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization are being fished at an unsustainable level. Climate change is likely to force a global redistribution of fish stocks; countries in the tropics face a catch reduction of two fifths as fish migrate permanently away from oceans that are becoming too warm. And fish are consuming microplastics on a scale never seen before, with consequences that remain hard to predict.

Emerging technologies offer new ways for governments, regulators and commercial organisations to get a grip on these problems and others. A huge step-change in computing power has driven the emergence of faster and more capable data processing, new space-based sensors, autonomous marine systems and other technologies; and as computing power grows cheaper, many of these capabilities are within reach for governments and commercial organisations on a scale and at a price that would have been unimaginable just ten years ago.

In fact, we live in a time of such rapid change in technology, it can be hard for those concerned with marine sustainability to understand which solutions are best placed to help. That’s where Verumar can step in. A consortium of four companies with substantial experience in the blue economy and space, we aim to make sure the blue economy works effectively and sustainably for all of humanity. We do this by building partnerships and providing strategic leadership to help governments and organisations make effective use of technology to develop their marine economies sustainably.

Supported by the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme, we bring together the blue economy experts NLA International with the earth intelligence company MDA, fisheries compliance specialists OceanMind and consultants Poseidon. Together, we’ve built a formidable foundation of knowledge, skills and experience in this sector. Because we believe in sharing our experience and innovation, we have just published a white paper, Emerging Technologies and their Application in Fisheries Management. It offers a plain-English introduction to new technologies across nine major areas of development, including unmanned aircraft and vessels, data processing, sensors and internet of things (IOT), big data, cybersecurity, and satellite technology.

In an industrial sector congested with jargon and conflicting commercial interests, the white paper offers an accessible and balanced overview of technologies that have enormous potential to help protect the earth’s marine resources, and support the people and communities that depend upon them. The paper brings the different technologies to life by offering real-world examples of how they are currently being put to use. Those case studies include our work with the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to deal with one of the most serious challenges facing sustainable fishing: illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Tech offers new ways to tackle illegal fishing

Of the approximately 180 million tonnes of fish landed worldwide each year, around 26 million tonnes are caught illegally. This huge catch is largely invisible to regulators, making it difficult for governments to protect their resources and manage fish stocks sustainably. This is an especially serious problem in regions where environmental threats to fisheries have already put stocks under strain: it makes life harder for responsible fishers, and could lead to a collapse in the availability of protein from the sea. In coastal regions, where fishing is often a key industry and provides a staple source of protein, that presents a potentially deadly threat to the survival of communities and legitimate sea-faring businesses.

“Countering IUU fishing is a really important area of focus for the Philippines,” says the white paper’s contributing author, Paul Gray. “Fishing is a huge part of the blue economy, and we have to protect it. It’s a hugely important food resource, it’s important for employment, and it’s also important for biodiversity. If you look at this from a higher level, it’s a national security issue too. Fish are a critical national resource, just as forests are, and just as oil and gas are.”

People involved in IUU fishing have evolved tactics to try to evade the authorities, but, as the white paper shows, new technologies are making it harder for the black market to prosper. Coastal states are investing in radar technology to provide better coverage of their territorial waters, making it harder for vessels to ‘go dark’ by disabling their automatic information system (AIS) transceivers. Unmanned aerial systems and autonomous surface vessels have further extended authorities’ reach and ability to detect irregular activities further from shore. And better and more accessible satellite technology has enabled regulators to establish new ways to track, disrupt and deter illegal fishing throughout countries’ entire exclusive economic zones.

“We can build a kind of mosaic picture using each of these different capabilities as part of a surveillance strategy,” says Gray. “For instance, you might take data from a range of satellites, different aerial platforms, unmanned surface vessels or in-situ sensors, and fuse and analyse these data in conjunction with other operational business data. Emerging tech, like artificial intelligence and machine learning, enables you to use many different sources of data, process and analyse it, to create actionable intelligence – and through the use of automation, increasingly, you can do that nearly in real time, so you can quickly get the results in front of a person who needs to use it.”

BFAR works with USAID to access data from NASA’s visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS), which provides global imagery in visible light and infrared at 750-metre resolution; this helps BFAR to identify vessels’ positions, even in near-darkness. Verumar complements this by analysing imagery and data from electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar satellites, whose finer resolution is greatly improving BFAR’s ability to identify illegal fishing vessels. Analysts build an intelligence picture from these multiple data sources, ultimately helping BFAR to identify and potentially to intercept IUU fishing vessels.

Illegal vessels now struggle to evade detection or interdiction by turning AIS off, or by attempting to deceive Philippine regulators in other ways. Emerging technology has given BFAR an unblinking eye on the Philippines’ waters – a strong deterrent for anyone attempting to plunder the country’s marine resources.

NLA International co-founder Nick Lambert says this deterrent effect is about more than just tackling illegal fishing: by tackling the illegal trade, the Philippines can help legitimate fishers to prosper. “Ships don’t fish illegally, people do,” he says. “But not everything people do at sea is bad. Legal fishing fleets can employ tens of thousands of people, and feed hundreds of millions. They do something that’s essential, because we all need to eat. By encouraging proper behaviour, we can bring effective regulation to the seas and oceans so that people can access resources sustainably. That’s good for everyone.”

Benefits beyond fisheries

The Philippines’ use of satellite data, machine learning and other technologies should serve as an example, within the region and beyond, of how the ongoing revolution in computing power and space tech can help solve some of the world’s environmental problems. But the benefits aren’t confined to fisheries. When states embrace new technology the benefits for civil society, too, can be immense – that’s a lesson learned repeatedly from historic shifts in technology, from the Space Race to the birth of the internet.

As the 22 case studies in Verumar’s white paper demonstrate, new technology and advances in existing technology are improving safety at sea, tracking fish stocks and helping scientists to understand the effects of climate change on the oceans. New capabilities are being put to work to support counter-piracy operations, improve the efficiency of fishing and cargo ports, keep people connected, and even to face up to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The UK Space Agency’s International Partnerships Programme (IPP) has helped companies and alliances like NLA International and Verumar to bring these capabilities to life for users across the globe. Paul Gray says the benefits can outlast any individual project: “The IPP is all about future sustainability. We bring these technologies to the end users, and develop their uses together. Then when the project comes to an end, there’s a level of ability and capacity built in so that the end user can continue to use the capabilities into the long term, in a self-sustaining way.”

Space, big data and computing power are critical resources for humanity, but it’s how they are applied to these real problems that really matters. Our white paper shows how those applications can make a measurable difference. Just as the Philippines has shown leadership in using space sensors to challenge IUU fishing, other authorities might yet turn to emerging technology to help humanity to face other global challenges. NLA International stands ready to work with them.

Key themes from the white paper will be discussed during a one-hour interactive webinar with our friends at SAFET (Seafood and Fisheries Emerging Technology). The session takes place on 29 October 2020, 10–11am, GMT‑7 (5pm UK time). You can register for the event here.