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Ocean of Data

Consortium improves access to technology, data to curb illegal fishing, protect economies and ecosystems


Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a global scourge: 1 in 5 fish sold is illegally caught. The Indo-Pacific, with 65% of the world’s oceans and more than half of its population, is rife with fishing operations that damage national economies, push depleted fish stocks toward collapse, harm marine ecosystems, and encourage forced and unsafe labor. Many nations rely on fish as a primary food source, so sustaining the resource is critical.

Helping states gather real-time insights and background data on suspected IUU fishing, and supporting effective responses is the essence of a new group of international nonprofits with expertise in identifying illegal fishing actors. The collaborative initiative, the Joint Analytical Cell (JAC), launched in May 2022 as a free and practical solution to the growing problem.

Authorities have had limited success in curtailing IUU fishing within many national maritime jurisdictions and on the high seas. Meanwhile, IUU fishing has increased in recent years, partly because COVID-19 restrictions pushed more impoverished people into illegal fishing and made monitoring and inspections more difficult. Nations with the capabilities to do so have taken separate enforcement approaches, often with little bilateral or multilateral collaboration.

The JAC serves as an information hub and forum to build capacity for monitoring, control and surveillance of fisheries. The partners help countries tackle IUU fishing with data, innovative technology and partnership development. Established by Global Fishing Watch, the International Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (IMCS) Network, and TM-Tracking, the JAC provides authorities with fisheries intelligence, analysis, support and training. More nonprofits have signed on, adding depth to the effort. The JAC receives funding from governments and philanthropic organizations.

Officers confiscate undersized fish at a market in Suva, Fiji.

“We believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Tony Long, Global Fishing Watch’s chief executive officer, said in a news release. “By combining our different strengths and areas of expertise, as well as our existing initiatives, tools and partnerships, we can amplify their impact.”

Some developing nations have limited capacity to monitor fishing and enforce good practices in their waters, let alone in distant oceans. That encourages those eager to exploit the enforcement void. The results can be devastating.

“At the heart of the IUU fishing issue is the potential for millions of people to lose their primary source of food due to the collapse of global fish stocks,” the Brookings Institution reported in February 2023. “As marine life knows no borders and IUU fishing perpetrators are highly mobile, often exploiting the vastness of the world’s oceans, this is truly a global problem.”

The JAC provides intelligence to partner governments, Mark Young, executive director of the IMCS Network, told FORUM. “Those that seek JAC support can do so via one-stop shopping rather than engaging with multiple organizations for services and getting confused by the landscape out there of multiple organizations working in the same space,” he said. 

Low risk, high value

Fishing is illegal when it occurs in a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without permission. Catches recorded as smaller than they are, or not recorded at all, are considered unreported. Satellite and radar monitoring have reduced but not eliminated unregulated fishing. For example, squid fisheries on the high seas in the northwest Indian and southwest Atlantic oceans operate without management plans in place and, consequently, lack effective regulation, Young said. 

Enforcement is not solely about sustaining fish populations. IUU fishing also is associated with organized crime, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The United States Customs and Border Protection in January 2023 announced a renewed commitment to combating illegal fishing “because of its direct convergence with serious crimes like forced labor, drug trafficking, money laundering, and wildlife trafficking.” Nations that counter IUU fishing also garner more revenue by sustainably harvesting their resources. 

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), the world’s second-most populated nation, consumes more fish than any other country, the U.S. Naval Institute reported in February 2023. It also consistently ranks among the worst performers on the IUU Fishing Index, which assesses 152 coastal countries “based on their vulnerability to, practice of, and response to harmful fishing practices.” The index was developed by Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management, a global fisheries and aquaculture consultant; and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a Switzerland-based nongovernmental organization.

Chinese fishing vessels often encroach on other nations’ maritime EEZs. The PRC’s distant-water fleet of 4,600 boats is the world’s largest and reaches farther into the high seas each year, the U.S. Naval Institute reported. Many Chinese-flagged fishing vessels and their crews are part of a maritime militia that Beijing describes as “an armed mass organization composed of civilians retaining their regular jobs,” U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Jennifer Runion reported in February 2023. The fishermen provide surveillance and receive training and funding to support the Chinese Communist Party’s military objectives.

IUU fishing is a low-risk, high-value activity because penalties usually are modest fines, the Pacific Forum, a Hawaii-based nonprofit that coordinates with research centers throughout the Pacific Rim, reported in November 2021. Globally, some vessels damage fragile marine ecosystems by dragging nets across the seafloor. Fleets haul in tuna, squid and other species, offloading their illegal bounty in ports where state regulation is lax at best.

Transshipment, in which catches are delivered to factory or refrigerated cargo ships often far out at sea, can be a weak link in regulating fishing, according to the FAO. It can be used to move fish without the effective oversight that occurs in some ports, enabling IUU catches to enter the supply chain.

Attempts to stop such operations, which also damage the livelihoods of legitimate fishermen, face formidable odds. But technology, including increasingly effective satellites, helps target and deter seafaring scofflaws. The JAC’s mission is to help nations, especially developing countries, tap into advanced options for identifying IUU fishing and its benefactors, and more effectively use data analytics for enforcement.  

A Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority officer monitors a fishing boat in Majuro Lagoon in March 2023.

Combined expertise

In Tokyo, in May 2022, leaders of the Quad, which includes Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., vowed to improve maritime domain awareness (MDA) by sharing information  and pursuing technologies to protect Indo-Pacific fisheries. Supporters said the agreement is a model for collectively combating IUU fishing.

Australia and Indonesia in 2007 established the Regional Plan of Action to Promote Responsible Fishing Practices Including Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing. Its 11 member states aim to strengthen fisheries management.

Tuvalu’s government hired a New Zealand company in 2022 to conduct satellite surveillance of unauthorized or nonreporting fishing vessels in the Pacific Island nation’s EEZ, according to Seafood Source, an online resource for seafood industry professionals. A shiprider agreement among the U.S. and 13 Pacific Island Countries, meanwhile, authorizes U.S. military vessels to help local authorities enforce laws in their maritime EEZs.

 “I think this idea of collaborative relationships will continue to foster interest, especially as we see it develop and foster into more mutually beneficial public-private partnerships,” Young said.

“Our engagement with the JAC is in the early stages,” Viv Fernandes, senior manager of International Compliance Policy for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, told FORUM. “However, we support the initiative and continue to engage with our international partners to share relevant information and analyses to cooperatively address IUU fishing.”

New Zealand officials also are optimistic. “Fisheries is a data-rich environment with multiple information streams now available to fisheries enforcement personnel,” Andrew Wright, team leader of New Zealand’s International Fisheries Compliance, told FORUM. “The JAC will help member countries make best use of this information, so it is able to be used by frontline officers.”

One of the JAC’s attributes is that it is not a commercial entity. Instead, member organizations provide access to technology and data analysis, especially to developing countries without the capacity to take advantage of emerging technologies, and greater access to data that can counter IUU fishing. Ideally, the services will enhance worldwide MDA, Young said.

“The new Joint Analytical Cell is a phenomenal example of how different groups can come together to harness existing technologies to amplify fisheries intelligence, data analysis and capacity building,” Monica Medina, then U.S. assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, said at the U.N. Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in late June 2022. “Most importantly, the information we generate together needs to quickly get into the hands of those that can effectively act on it.”  

JAC Partners

The Joint Analytical Cell’s (JAC) founding nonprofits support collective efforts and welcome others’ expertise. The three groups that launched the JAC are:

  • Global Fishing Watch analyzes and disseminates information about human activity at sea to promote fair and sustainable use of the oceans. “To make the invisible visible” it uses satellite imagery, machine learning and data visualization to track GPS coordinates from vessels’ automatic identification systems and vessel monitoring systems.
  • The International Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (IMCS) Network supports “communication, cooperation and coordination” among its members and those responsible for fisheries compliance and enforcement. The IMCS Network also facilitates capacity building for fisheries law enforcement agencies, especially in developing countries. 
  • TM-Tracking (TMT) provides national fisheries authorities and international organizations with intelligence and analysis to help partner countries improve fisheries enforcement and governance.

Additional organizations have joined the JAC as partners:

  • C4ADS, a United States-based research institute, provides data-driven analysis to link fishing boats to those companies or individuals who profit most from their catches. “If you’re just pinpointing vessels at sea, you’re playing whack-a-mole,” Sam Naujokas, a C4ADS lead analyst on the project, told FORUM.
  • The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence’s AI-powered software Skylight provides maritime analysts and protected area managers with a near real-time tool to identify suspicious vessel behavior.

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