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Tracking technology helps crack down on illegal fishing practices

Transshipment describes the practice where fishing boats transfer their catch to cargo vessels at sea rather than returning to port.

In theory, it can be an efficient process for both fishers and cargo shipping. But because transshipment often occurs out of sight on the high seas, it has aided in the trade of illegally caught fish along with weapons and drug trafficking.

The unregulated seas where transhipments happen also leaves the door open for human rights abuses because the high seas are out of reach from jurisdiction.

Two new studies focusing on transshipment have, for the first time, been able to use new advancement in fishing tracking technology to map out where transshipment occurs and what fish are going where.

One study titled “Global hot spots of transshipment of fish catch at sea” was conducted by researchers from Dalhousie University and published in the journal Science Advances.

“Identifying global patterns of transshipment behavior” was conducted by researchers from Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth and was published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Both studies put the spotlight on transshipment and highlight the problem areas were it occurs the most.

“Because catches from different boats are mixed up during transshipment, we often have no idea what was caught legally and what wasn’t,” said Kristina Boerder, the lead author of the first paper.

One major problem with tackling the problems of transshipment was that it often happened out of sight and reach on the high seas. Dalhousie researchers rectified this by applying machine learning techniques to vessel tracking data.

Between 2012 and 2017, researchers observed 501 refrigerated cargo vessels meeting with 1,856 shipping vessels to conduct 10,510 probable transshipment transactions.

“So far, this practice was out of sight out of mind, but now that we can track it using satellites, we can begin to know where our fish truly comes from,” said Boris Worm, a co-author of the Science Advances paper.

For the other study, researchers from SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch used the same machine learning technology and satellite identification systems developed to map the global fishing footprint from space to track refrigerated cargo vessels.

The studies found that transshipment is more prevalent in areas off the coast of West Africa, Russia, and in the tropical Pacific.

The two studies together have compiled the most complete view of transshipment to date.

“These unprecedented studies serve as examples for how big data experts, NGOs, and academics can come together to address critical, global challenges that were up to now too large, too complicated, or simply too hard to observe,” said Nate Miller, a Data Scientist at SkyTruth and author on both papers.

The research shows that widespread management and regulation of the fishing industry is possible and offer much-needed transparency on fisheries where there previously wasn’t any.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Image © Global Fishing Watch

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