Using Satellites To Track Illegal Fishing Vessels at Night

The U.S. NGO Oceana is working with municipal governments in the Philippines to expose illegal fishing in that country’s waters using a U.S. government satellite sensor called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS).  This satellite sensor’s images are key because the sensor can detect illegal fishing in prohibited areas that ordinarily takes place at night in isolated places by “seeing” artificial light sources or “super lights” that are used by fishing boats fishing to attract fish in the dark.  There are still some limitations in what the technology can do:

  • it cannot identify specific vessels
  • there is a time lag in processing the photos
  • it can only monitor illegal fishing at night

But the first step is identifying the illegal fishing hot spots so that enforcement operations can target those areas specifically rather than trying to patrol all of the Philippine ocean territories.  This is also a novel use of the VIIRs satellite sensor, which was intended to take measurements for weather forecasts and climate change science.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates the VIIRs sensor, has also shared similar satellite imagery with Indonesia and the NGO Global Fishing Watch in an effort to snuff out illegal fishing there too.  But if the program in the Philippines is successful, perhaps it can be used in other countries with large ocean territories and valuable fisheries that are hard to keep safe from illegal fishing operations.

Why This Matters:  Illegal fishers have always thought they could get away with fishing in protected areas by doing it at night in countries with large areas of ocean territory to patrol and few resources with which to do that — but not any longer.  This satellite imagery is a game changer.  More than 5 Trillion Philippine Pesos a year are lost to illegal fishing. By sharing the photos on Facebook daily and using them to help “monitor” nighttime fishing activity — countries like the Philippines and Indonesia have a credible threat of enforcement against illegal fishers. New technologies and internet transparency are helping to close in on criminal operations that are stealing fish in countries that are working hard to crack down on them.

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