From a naval command centre perched on the coast of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, Capt. Isiais Bodero Mala surveyed incoming satellite feeds tracking fishing vessels circling one of the world’s most biodiverse places.
Mala was previously a submarine commander, so conservation monitoring wasn’t initially a first-choice assignment for the long-serving mariner.
But with hundreds of fishing boats routinely stalking around the world-famous marine protected area for endangered hammerhead sharks, giant squids and other species, his work here is increasingly vital. Ecuador and other Latin American countries have tasked their security forces with cracking down on the fleets poaching from their waters.
Standing in front of large computer screens with other sailors in crisp white uniforms, Mala recounted a story from a fellow submarine commander who was using sonar to listen to a “massive school of fish” from his battle station while tracking a flotilla of Chinese ships.
“After the fishing fleet had passed, there was complete silence — the fish had disappeared,” Mala said in an interview.
About one in five fish consumed globally is either caught illegally without proper reporting or regulations to protect the sustainability of fish populations, according to a British study. It’s an enterprise worth up to $50 billion US annually, depriving some of the world’s poorest coastal communities of crucial nutrition and income, exacerbating declining stocks and threatening endangered species.
June 5 is the United Nations’ International Day for the Fight against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUU), and officials say the problem is only getting worse globally.
As co-ordinated fishing fleets increasingly prowl the world’s oceans — often entering the waters of small developing nations — governments and conservationists are increasingly turning to space-based technology to push back against the industrial-scale theft of marine resources.
Satellites help find ‘needle in a haystack’
In Ecuador, the government has enlisted help from Canadian tech companies and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to tackle the problem.
“There has been a big change on the technology front in recent years,” said Sean Wheeler, DFO’s chief of international programs. “Before, we were missing the ability to see the whole state of play.”
With tens of thousands of industrial fishing boats operating across the world’s oceans, pinpointing illicit operators is like searching for a “needle in a haystack,” said Mark Carmichael, a senior executive with the Brampton, Ont.-based space technology firm MDA.
Under a $7-million project financed by Ottawa, the company, which is behind the Canadarm on the International Space Station, is providing satellite tracking, remote sensing and the ability to synthesize large amounts of data to Ecuador’s navy.
Linking feeds from powerful satellites, including MDA’s Radarsat-2, with vessel ownership data and records of past offences can help security forces zero in on ships carrying out illicit activities, DFO’s Wheeler said.
Other organizations, including the Google-backed tracking group Global Fishing Watch, provide Ecuador with artificial intelligence interpreting boat movements, including fishing operations in prohibited areas.
These different pieces of information are uploaded onto a map in one of Ecuador’s naval operation centres, allowing security forces to better pick their battles for intercepting suspicious ships.
It’s logistically impossible to inspect every ship on the high seas, Wheeler said, so “space-based [satellites] allow countries to better organize the limited resources we all have.”
Lucrative criminal enterprise
Environmental crimes, including illegal fishing, are the world’s third-most lucrative illicit enterprise, according to the global police organization Interpol, just behind drugs and counterfeit goods — and ahead of human trafficking.
The prevalence of these crimes has been increasing “drastically” at five per cent annually, Interpol reported, with “huge profits to be made and risk factors relatively low in terms of penalty.”
An estimated 11 to 26 million tonnes of fish are illegally captured and unreported annually, according to estimates from an Imperial College London study cited by the United Nations. The tide, however, could be starting to turn.
“There is increasing global momentum to address crimes in the fisheries sector,” said Lejda Toci, an officer with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “There are some very good initiatives countries have amongst themselves from satellite imagery, mapping the vessels, tracking the vessels and databases of suspicious vessels.”
How new technologies work
All large commercial ships are supposed to use a tracking tool called an Automatic Identification System (AIS), which reveals locations and voyage information to avoid collisions.
Ships engaged in illegal fishing, however, often shut off their AIS, particularly when they enter a sensitive area like the Galapagos Marine Reserve, said Capt. Mala. A Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) also broadcasts a ship’s identity, location and speed, but it only sends out a signal every couple of hours — and it, too, can be turned off.
Monitoring AIS or VMS movements is often the first tool used by navies to combat illegal fishing. But when vessels turn off their locators and “go dark,” more advanced tech tools need to be unsheathed.
“The only way to find the dark vessels is to do surveillance from space,” Carmichael said. To make that happen, MDA is working with Ecuador to pursue other signals.
When boats shut off their trackers before sailing into protected areas, some mariners still need to stay in touch with the outside world via satellite phones. Additionally, ships usually keep their onboard radar functioning to avoid collisions. Boat engines also unintentionally emit electromagnetic waves constituting a specific signature.
Some of these signals can be followed by MDA with radio frequency sensing, a military technology now available for civilian use, Carmichael said. MDA satellites can pinpoint radio waves emitted by satellite phones or onboard navigation systems, even if a ship’s other location information has been hidden or corrupted.
Another tool, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), picks up radar wave reflections from boats at sea even if their other tracking tools are off, creating an image that is then relayed to authorities. SAR is especially useful for visualizing boats in remote locations or during periods of bad weather when other technologies, such as Very High Resolution satellite imagery, are less effective.
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First developed for submarine warfare, Passive Acoustic Systems monitor underwater listening devices to identify a ship’s location and the type of fishing gear it’s using based on the sound it makes while sailing.
Data from all of these complex systems is combined with the help of advanced algorithms, Carmichael said, and provided to Ecuador’s naval operations centres. With location information projected on computer screens, intelligence operatives can then dispatch their forces more efficiently.
“We get information from the operations centre. Then we are sent out,” said Jorge Lopez, commander of Ecuador’s machine-gun-equipped offshore patrol vessel Isla Isabela.
The patrol ship has special image recognition software that can identify endangered sharks his team might find onboard a fishing boat just by their fins.
As a result of this kind of data, Lopez said his forces were able to intervene against nine semi-industrial boats harvesting from waters reserved for small fishermen last year. Caught illegally harvesting, some of those fishermen are still in jail, he added.
Some fishermen unhappy with new tech rules
According to a recently passed law, fishing vessels operating in Ecuador’s waters are supposed to be outfitted with AIS. But the law has yet to be fully implemented. For now, only industrial fishing ships, and artisanal fishing boats allowed to operate within the Galapagos marine reserve, are equipped and monitored, fishermen and officials said.
The rise of AIS and other satellite tracking tech hasn’t been met with universal support.
Some small-scale fishermen welcome the new technology as a tool to protect law-abiding harvesters around the Galapagos. It also allows relatives to know their kin are safe at sea.
“The AIS is an excellent idea,” said 70-year-old Alberto Granja, a longtime Galapagos resident and retired fisheries worker. The problem, he said, is that buying the gear costs $1,200 US and many of the trackers donated to local fishermen by conservation groups now need to be replaced.
To other fishermen, the technology is little more than red tape — one more piece of kit poor workers have to maintain on their boats — and a symptom of government overreach.
“There are huge Chinese fleets out there,” he said. “There is no control of big boats outside the reserve… The Chinese have the technology to detect where the fish are, but we don’t.”
Beijing’s tight rope
Chinese fishing incursions into the Galapagos’s exclusive economic zone have not been a regular occurrence since a flotilla of more than 300 boats besieged the area in 2020, drawing a public rebuke from Ecuador’s government, as well as naval action and international headlines.
Since then, the fleet seems to have kept away from the Galapagos, focusing instead on other parts of South America.
Ecuadorian officials have met with Beijing’s representatives on the issue, Capt. Mala said. China’s embassy in Ecuador did not respond to requests for comment.
With few enforceable rules on what boats can take from the high seas, there is not much that can be done about the fleet’s activities today, conservationists said.
China is still not part of the Port State Measures Agreement, a key UN treaty enabling port inspections crucial to reducing the laundering of illegally caught fish.
While Chinese vessels are thought to be the worst offenders when it comes to large-scale illegal practices — including the 2017 actions of the vessel Fu Yuan Yu Leung, caught with some 7,000 sharks aboard, many of them endangered species — ships from Ecuador and nearby nations certainly aren’t innocent.
Between 2018 and 2020, more than 135 unauthorized Ecuadorian industrial fishing boats were caught operating inside the marine protected area, according to data from the Galapagos National Park.
To try and build a united front for conservation, Ecuador has partnered with neighbours Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama to link several marine protected areas, including the Galapagos, creating an uninterrupted corridor for sharks, turtles, whales and other sea life spanning 500,000 square kilometres. Presidents of the four nations announced plans for the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR) during the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last November.
In January 2022, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso signed a declaration expanding the Galapagos Marine Reserve by 60,000 square kilometres, an area larger than Nova Scotia, bringing the Galapagos marine protected area to 198,000 square kilometres.
Tracking boats at sea is just one part of the equation, said analysts. Navies, especially in cash-strapped countries across the Global South, have limited resources to chase down and board vessels inside their own exclusive economic zones.
Rather than following boats, some tech experts are turning their attention to tracking the fish itself. At some point, illegally caught fish will be sold to consumers, and naming and shaming repeat offenders at the retail level can be a powerful tool.
This, however, is harder than tracking ships. The mixing up of fish from different boats and even fishing areas through the transfer of catch at sea, a process known as transshipment, means tracing the origins of the marine life sold in different products is challenging.
Many seafood traders also mislabel fish shipments, to avoid taxes, regulations or simply increase profits, conservationists said. Moreover, it is not known how much of the illegally caught fish ends up in mixed products, such as fish meal and pet food, for which the origins are often even more difficult to ascertain.
“It’s really hard to have traceability for fish and seafood with transshipment,” said Nancy De Lemos from the monitoring group Global Fishing Watch. “It’s hard to identify which fish comes from a legitimate activity and which does not.”
Her organization is trying to address that by tracking transshipments to identify which vessel was shifting the catch and where the mothership eventually docks. But even if a large ship thought to be engaged in illicit transshipments on the high seas is tracked to port, that information alone often isn’t enough to bring criminals to justice.
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“It’s a sector that’s complex and global in nature,” said the UNODC’s Lejda Toci. Bad actors can use loopholes in national legislation or register in a secretive jurisdiction regardless of where they fish, she added. “These are all aspects that make it particularly susceptible to transnational organized crime and corruption.”
More than one third of global fish stocks are being overexploited, according to UN data, and the impacts of illegal fishing are getting worse.
Working at a stall in an open-air Galapagos market, 52-year-old fishmonger Marisa Felipe Suarez is one of the millions of people hurt by the mechanized pilfering of the world’s oceans.
Wearing a blue cap and a big smile, she’s married to a fisherman and regularly sails the Galapagos’s waters herself with a licence for a small catch.
“This is a maritime reserve of international value,” she said of the islands, which have enough diversity of life to have inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
“There should be help to stop [illegal fishing] from navies all over the world. These big fishing boats come from afar, take everything and then bring the fish back to their countries.”
The travel and reporting for this story were funded by a grant from the Global Reporting Centre and Social Sciences Humanities and Research Council.