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Deeply Talks: Fighting Illegal Fishing With Big Data, Robots and A.I.

In our latest Deeply Talks, experts from Vulcan and Schmidt Marine Technology Partners discuss new technologies being developed and deployed around the world to stop illegal fishing, which is depleting valuable fish species and devastating other marine life.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
Chinese fishing boats.Fang Yi/CHINA NEWS SERVICE/VCG via Getty Images

In this episode of Deeply Talks, Todd Woody, News Deeply’s executive editor for environment, and a panel of experts talk about how satellites, sensors, artificial intelligence and DNA scanners are creating powerful new tools to fight illegal fishing. Todd is joined by Mark Powell, Vulcan’s senior ocean researcher, and Jake Hanft, an analyst at Schmidt Marine Technology Partners.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing can have a dramatic impact on the health of marine ecosystems and on the communities that depend on them. But one of the things that makes illegal fishing so difficult to stop, says Hanft, is that there aren’t always easily identifiable bad guys to catch. “Oftentimes there are fishermen who will fish legally 80–90 percent of the time, but then will fish illegally every once in a while,” says Hanft. “It’s a nebulous problem, and it has a lot of different forms it can take.”

This is where technology comes into play. Both Schmidt Marine Technology and Vulcan are funding technologies that can help detect and deter illegal activities. (Schmidt Marine is part of the Schmidt Family Foundation established by Wendy and Eric Schmidt, the former Google chief executive. Vulcan is owned by Paul G. Allen, the Microsoft cofounder.) Powell says that Vulcan is developing a new platform, called Skylight, which uses satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to pinpoint illegal fishing and predict where it may occur. By analyzing the movement of fishing vessels, Skylight can identify what type of fishing is happening and when a fishing vessel seems to be doing something that could indicate illegal activity, such as sailing into a particular area late at night. The system is already being tested in the Pacific island nation of Palau and in Costa Rica.

Policing fishing boats is not the only way to crack down on illegal fishing. Seafood fraud is a big issue throughout the entire supply chain, one that cheats consumers and impacts wild fish populations. When seafood is labeled as the wrong species, it becomes almost impossible for regulators to trace it back to the source and understand how and where the animal was caught.

That, says Hanft, is why Schmidt Marine helped fund Conservation X Labs to develop an affordable and portable DNA barcode scanner. The gadget will be able to identify the species of a piece of seafood within hours, letting regulators and seafood companies know if fishers are really selling what they say they are. Another Schmidt Marine portfolio company, Pelagic Data Systems, has developed a solar-powered tracking device designed to be installed on small fishing boats that are not otherwise monitored in developing countries. By analyzing a boat’s movements, Pelagic can determine if it is fishing sustainably.

Illegal fishing might not be an issue that consumers think about every day, but Powell says there is a lot of room for growth and innovation for technology companies. “The industry and governments are losing billions of dollars to illegal fishing,” says Powell, “and so there should be tremendous demand for the kinds of technologies that we’re talking about.”

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