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Under the radar: illuminating the operations of dark fishing fleets

Historically, the enormity of our oceans has created significant challenges in the surveillance of fishing activities in offshore waters. This has led to a rise in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, whereby fishing is conducted outside the bounds of national or international regulations, often in violation of established laws. The impact of IUU fishing is far-reaching, exacerbating overfishing, destroying marine habitats and threatening millions of livelihoods around the world. Dark fishing fleets are often the culprit of this illicit practice. These vessels intentionally avoid oversight by switching off their automatic identification systems (AIS) and remaining hidden in public monitoring systems. Through the lens of IUU fishing, this blog post will explore the consequences of dark fleets and how AI is serving to expose the extent of their operations.



The Importance of Public Ship Mapping


Public mapping of ships involves the use of AIS to enable the real-time tracking of a vessel’s movements and activities. This method is crucial as it enhances maritime domain awareness, allowing stakeholders (including the public) to monitor vessel traffic, identify potential areas of concern, and track vessels engaged in legal or illegal activities. The transparency offered through public mapping is also valuable in the context of fisheries management as it aids with the enforcement of legislation and ensure compliance with fishing regulations. In addition to this, it fosters a sense of shared responsibility, encouraging collaboration among nations to address challenges related to maritime security, safety, and the sustainable management of marine resources. The caveat to public mapping is the variation of regulations governing the usage of AIS such that not all vessels are required to use an AIS device.





The Impact of Dark Fishing Fleets


Dark fishing fleets pose a major challenge in the protection and management of marine resources. A large proportion of these fleets deliberately sever their AIS connection in order to covertly participate in illicit fishing practices, such as fishing without proper authorisation, catching protected species, using banned gear, and operating in prohibited areas. IUU fishing is the world’s sixth largest crime, accounting for up to 1 in 4 fish caught at sea and costing around $23.5 billion a year. The illicit operations of dark fishing fleets undermine the effectiveness of fisheries management and conservation efforts. By operating outside of the law, these fleets make it difficult for authorities to monitor and regulate fishing activity, thereby leading to weaker enforcement of management measures. This has significant and often negative impacts on marine ecosystems, economies, and social wellbeing.





The Role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Illuminating Dark Fishing Fleet Activity


A recent AI-driven study by Paolo et al. (Global Fishing Watch) uncovered rampant unregulated activity on the high seas using a combination of satellite imagery, GPS data, and artificial intelligence. The study revealed that three quarters of the world’s industrial fishing vessels (>23m) are not being publicly tracked. The presence of dark fleets was especially concentrated around South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. The study also identified that a large number of dark vessels were operating in protected waters. For example, up to 20 dark vessels were identified each week in well known marine protected areas such as the Galápagos Marine Reserve and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. These findings highlight the valuable role AI can play in illuminating dark fishing vessels and quantifying the scale, scope, and location of global fishing activity.





In conclusion, the obscurity of dark fishing operations represents a critical challenge in the sustainable management of marine resources. Whilst public mapping technologies such as AIS are beneficial, the persistence of dark fishing fleets necessitates the development of innovative monitoring solutions such as those involving AI. We find ourselves at a critical point in the battle against IUU fishing, one which hinges upon the integration of these technologies along with international cooperation and strengthened regulations.



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