On Tuesday, June 23, 2015, the Marshalls 203 – a tuna-fishing purse-seiner from the Marshall Islands – crossed into the southwest corner of Kiribati’s recently created Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), and fished there from 4:14 am to 8:16 am.
On June 25, after arranging funds for fuel, Kiribati’s only patrol boat, the RKS Teanoai, set off from the port of Betio to chase it down. On June 29 it was intercepted and escorted back to port, where the captain and crew were imprisoned awaiting prosecution. After a week’s pause for Kiribati’s independence celebrations, its fishing fleet accepted a fine of $1 million US and also agreed to donate a further $1 million US to the Kiribati government as an expression of goodwill. GreenPeace still black listed it.
Kiribati is an independent, economically challenged Pacific island country with about 100,000 human inhabitants living on some of the 33 small islands strung out in several clusters over the equator. Its EEZ includes 3.5 million sq km of ocean. In January 2015 it created PIPA within that EEZ, a huge area of 408,000 sq km where it banned all commercial fishing.
And right there is the challenge: How can Kiribati, with virtually no resources of its own besides a single patrol boat, enforce responsible, sustainable fishing in a large piece of the Pacific Ocean? A poacher’s paradise, you would think, and yet clearly it isn’t.
Not surprisingly perhaps, chasing down the tuna-poaching purse-seiner depended on considerable international funds as well as the extraordinary tracking technology that now exists.
The funding for enforcement has come mainly from the WIATT Foundation (which supports programs on ocean health) and from Oceans 5 (dedicated to protecting the 5 oceans by stopping overfishing and establishing marine reserves) – altogether $i million US per year for 5 yrs.
But remote tracking made the detection and arrest of the poaching tuna-fishing vessel possible. The newest technology is Automatic Identification System (AIS) that involves a shipboard VHF transmitter, along with a GPS receiver, allowing tracking by satellites and shore stations. Though AIS was developed so that ships wouldn’t collide in crowded coastal waters, it has been expanded through Global Fishing Watch, a collaboration of SkyTruth, Oceana and Google for monitoring the activity of the globe’s fishing vessels.
It does look impressive – Global Fishing Watch’s website is worth looking at. The prototype has been running for a couple of years, using billions of data points as it tracks hundreds of thousands of vessels, and it can convincingly distinguish between a vessel that is fishing and one that isn’t. The poaching tuna-fishing vessel Marshalls 203 was identified and tracked through AIS, and you can check for yourself what that or any AIS equipped vessel is up to.
Global Fishing Watch is intended to be available for everyone to use, not just look at, and should be public sometime this year. It is likely to be used more and more – for instance Indonesia is adopting it to detect unwanted foreign vessels fishing in its waters.
Is it fool-proof? Hardly.
We are a sneaky species, and among our greatest talents is our ability to cheat. There are lots of ways to manipulate AIS, some obvious (just turn it off) others not. Another internet service, Windward, is helping to detect some of the cheating, but of course cheating just gets more sophisticated.
Probably the great strength of AIS is that a vessel can use it to prove that it has been fishing legally. The next step is for ports to accept fish only from vessels that can show such proof – and that is a likely development in many places.
So AIS remains an exciting technology that will will reduce illegal fishing, especially where countries have few other resources to monitor and protect their EEZs.