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Illegal fishing: the next frontier of big data analysis?

Written by Miren Gutierrez

Fishing is a field that generates a lot of data. Fishing vessels over a particular size are obliged to enrol in national registries and, while they operate at sea, they must regularly emit signals broadcasting their movements and destinations. These signals are captured by other ships, terrestrial stations and satellites.

We conducted surveys of, and interviews with, the principal organisations dedicated to analysing data on fishing. Our briefing note reveals that the potential of the data infrastructure is being undermined by the limited size and poor quality of both datasets and algorithms.

Nobody knows how many fishing vessels there are in the world; let alone what they are doing. This makes the fight against illegal fishing harder.

Illegal fishing

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for as much as one-fifth of the global fisheries catch, worth between $10 billion and $23.5 billion annually. There is growing evidence linking IUU fishing with migration, human and drugs trafficking, corruption and money laundering. It is also known to have negative impacts on food security, job creation and the development of coastal communities in general. But the movement against illegal fishing is yet to embrace the so-called data revolution.

A lot of data is available

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), there are an estimated 4.6 million fishing vessels. Each vessel typically reports on at least 120 types of information, and during its lifetime one vessel may accumulate several information entries each time it changes owner, flag, operator or name. Additionally, all fishing vessels longer than 15 metres are required to emit, every few minutes, signals containing (among other information) a timestamp, and their longitude and latitude.

Consequently, a vast amount of data on fishing vessels exists, and with the emergence of satellite services in 2010, these data are commercially available now. However, our report highlights that developed countries and multilateral organisations have been slow to exploit the opportunity this presents. Rather than being placed in a single, efficient, public, global fisheries information tool, the data is scattered around a myriad of registries.

The lack of a single fisheries information database makes the detection of illegal fishing very difficult.

The need for ‘big data’ analysis

Data analysis is a way to compensate for the lack of resources available for physically monitoring and patrolling the oceans. For example, the first ever data-based fish transhipment report, published by ODI in 2016, showed clear indications that concrete reefer vessels were involved in previously undetected irregular operations.

Our report makes the case for stronger, more collaborative alliances between those responsible for fishing data. They must work more closely on gathering, standardising and analysing this ever-growing data set. We also need improved fisheries governance. This includes more significant efforts to tackle corruption and illegal practices – such as the use of flags of convenience and secret fisheries agreements.

The effectiveness of initiatives aimed at dealing with illegal fishing will hinge on the robustness of the data, how easily it can be obtained and our ability to interpret it based on knowledge of the industry. Without a single, unified database of the information available, the fight against illegal fishing will be an uphill battle.