Scientists use ALBATROSSES to track illegal fishing boats

Scientists turn ALBATROSSES into surveillance drones to help track illegal fishing boats in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean

  • French scientists attaches radar and communication sensors to albatrosses
  • They albatrosses surveyed more than 18 million square miles of ocean
  • They discovered more than a third of boats had turned communications systems off, consistent with behavior expected from illegal fishing vessels

A team of researchers from the University of La Rochelle in France have converted albatrosses into de facto surveillance drones as part of a project to gather data on illegal fishing boats in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.

The team traveled to popular albatross nesting locations at Amsterdam Island and Kerguelen Island in the Indian Ocean north of Antarctica, and attached small sensors to 169 albatrosses in a procedure that took about 10 minutes per bird.

The sensors weigh 65 grams, or around a seventh of a pound, and were equipped with a GPS receiver, a radar antenna, and a satellite communications monitor to track various boat communication systems.

A group of researchers from the University of La Rochelle in France attached sensor devices to 169 albatrosses to gather data about fishing vessels in international waters and search for potentially illegal activity

The devices were each powered by a small lithium battery that maintains a charge through a small solar panel, according to a report from ArsTechnica.

The albatrosses covered more than 18 million square miles between East Africa and New Zealand, gathering data from more than 600,000 GPS locations.

In all, they detected more than 5,000 radar signals from 353 different vessels.

More than a third of the boats detected by the birds’ sensors couldn’t be identified.

28 percent had turned off their official communication systems, suggesting the possibility they were trying to avoid detection or were illegally fishing in areas they shouldn’t have been.

Most commercial fishing vessels use several different communication systems depending on where they are.

The first is a Vessel Monitoring System, which allows local authorities to track all guest vessels in their territory.

Another is the Automatic Identification System, which allows ships to communicate directly with one another to help avoid collisions or crowding.

The team targeted albatrosses from Amsterdam Island and Kerguelen Island, which then flew across some 18 million square miles of ocean territory.

AN END TO GLOBAL OVER-FISHING COULD REAP BILLIONS

Global profits from fishing could grow by tens of billions of dollars if depleted fish stocks were allowed to recover, the World Bank said earlier this month.

Overfishing costs more than $80 billion a year in lost revenues as dwindling supplies require extra effort to find and catch increasingly scarce fish, according to a World Bank study.

Millions of people depend on fish to survive, and fish will be vital to feeding the world population that is predicted to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050, the United Nations has said.

Due to over-exploitation, however, trawlers must sail further and longer to catch fish, leading to higher costs and lower profits, the World Bank said in a study titled ‘Sunken Billions Revisited.’

Illegal fishing vessels often keep one or both of these systems turned off to avoid detection during illegal activity. 

However, these vessels can often still be identified by searching for their radar signals, which is almost always left on to scan for obstacles and fish populations in the waters around them.

By tracking radar signals, researchers were able to locate specific vessels, then check VMS and AIS records for ships officially documented as having been at or around those specific GPS coordinates. 

If radar signals suggested a boat was in an area where none was identified in VMS or AIS regions, they considered the possibility of illegal fishing or exchange of potentially illegal catches between vessels. 

Waters were tuna is commonly fished had the highest percentage of boats with all their main communication systems turned off.  

After analyzing the data, researchers found that more than one third of boats had turned off standard communication systems, behavior consistent with illegal fishing techniques

They found that boats were most likely to have turned off their Automatic Identification Systems in tuna fishing waters.

In recent years, several new limits have been placed on tuna fishing in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere to help keep local fish populations from falling below certain levels.

In 2016, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission banned several different fishing techniques, including the use of drones to locate large schools of fish, the use of ‘fish-aggregating devices’ that attract fish with bright visual markers, and using spotlights to attract fish at night.

The team is currently working on expanding the scope of the project and hopes to conduct future missions in Hawaii, the South Atlantic Ocean and more territory around New Zealand.

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