African Nations Go High-Tech to Fight Illegal Fishing - Africa Defense Forum
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African Nations Go High-Tech to Fight Illegal Fishing

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High above the waters off the coast of West Africa, the seabirds trailing a fishing trawler share space with a wedge-shaped drone that also follows the ship.

The drone belongs to ATLAN Space, a Moroccan company using technology to keep watch on fishing far from the mainland. ATLAN’s drones replace the small aircraft or coast guard vessels that usually do the monitoring, freeing them for other law enforcement tasks.

The artificial intelligence that powers the drone earned ATLAN CEO and co-founder Badr Idrissi a spot among the 10 finalists in the 2017 Innovation Prize for Africa. In 2018, ATLAN won the National Geographic Society’s $150,000 Marine Protection Prize, which financed a pilot project to combat illegal fishing in the Seychelles.

“With artificial intelligence we are able to replace the pilot, the data analyst, transmission equipment, and with that we can reduce the cost,” Idrissi, a former account manager at Microsoft, told Tech Gist Africa. “We consider ourselves a partner of government to build a sustainable solution to the issues and challenges they are facing.”

A quarter of the fish caught off Africa’s coast are taken illegally. The continent’s rich fishing areas face threats from a combination of underpowered enforcement, historic corruption, and aggressive international fleets — many of them from China and Iran but also from elsewhere in Asia or Europe — working African waters with little regard for the rules.

Many of those fleets want to keep their activities secret, but 21st century technology is making that more difficult.

To fight illegal fishing, governments and nongovernmental organizations are using everything from satellites to albatrosses to monitor fishing vessels, track their behavior and report those who break the law. All the technology has a single purpose: to build a case against bad actors and shut them down.

“We want a better view of what happens at sea, when the ship comes to port and who the owner is,” Michele Kuruc, vice president for ocean policy at the World Wildlife Fund, told ADF. “It’s about expanding the toolbox to see how we can put those tools together to create actionable data.”

The toolbox already has a staggering variety of tools and users:

  • Spyglass, a database developed for EcoTrust Canada, uses public records and confidential informants to record every fishing vessel known to be involved in illegal activities, from violating territorial waters to human trafficking.
  • Skylight uses ships’ automatic identification system (AIS) transponders to report their movements in real time and identify ships that may be breaking the law. The system is being tested off the coast of Gabon.
  • Tiny transmitters mounted to albatrosses use the birds’ ability to soar long distances and their nose for fishing vessels to follow ships, monitor their behavior, and identify bad actors.

Along with technology, a variety of organizations are working to help countries clamp down on illegal fishing in their waters. C4ADS seeks to identify the owners and ultimate beneficiaries of vessels doing the fishing. FISH-i Africa brings together seven East African countries in a united front against companies engaged in illegal fishing. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Trygg Mat Tracking and the Africa-based Stop Illegal Fishing either advise governments directly or are developing their own online tools to track illegal fishing.

“We are at the stage of significant catch-up in the fishing sector in terms of transparency,” Kuruc said.

Despite the legion of international organizations at work on the issue, local fishermen can have the biggest impact. Kuruc said her group is giving local fishermen cellphones to document vessels illegally fishing within the near-shore zone reserved for artisanal fishermen. The phones can snap pictures and transmit the images to WWF and government agencies.

In Mozambique, Manuel Castiano, WWF’s regional sustainable fisheries program coordinator, works with the Ministry of Sea, Inland Water and Fisheries to track Mozambican ships violating fishing rules using the satellite-based vessel monitoring system. He is testing a system to track smaller vessels using their AIS transponders.

Mozambique focuses on local vessels because its waters are largely free of the international fleets plaguing West Africa, Castiano told ADF.

Whether African nations attack illegal fishing from the air, the sea or cyberspace, they share a common problem when it comes to using technology to protect their waters.

“There are challenges due to open access and lack of enforcement and alternatives,” Castiano said. “Sustainability of the system and the analytical capacity remain a challenge.”

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