Author Daniel Brigham

For every five fish that are caught, one is done so illegally. The impact of this on the ocean’s ecosystem is potentially catastrophic, and policing the problem is notoriously difficult. Not-for-profit OceanMind is leading the fight against illegal fisheries using satellites and machine learning, and its CEO Nick Wise gives us the lowdown on the fight to save the seas

In 2018, 156 million tonnes of fish was eaten globally. To put that into some sort of context, it’s roughly the equivalent of 22 million African elephants. Or 427 Empire State Buildings. Or, to put it another way: it’s really rather a lot of fish. The pressure this puts on the oceans has been widely reported. According to a 2020 report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, there are 4.6 million fishing vessels in the water – a whopping 68% of them in Asia – and 39 million people are employed in fisheries. It’s an upward trend, too, with a 122% increase in fish consumption between 1990 and 2018. As ever, where environmental and financial pressures collide, the rise of illegality is never too far behind. So, alongside that 122% increase, in the same 28-year period the percentage of fish stocks within biological sustainable levels fell from 90% to 65.8%. This is an alarming trend, and fueled by illegal fishing – unlicensed, noncompliant fishing that goes undocumented. It threatens sustainability, and puts at risk the food supply of thousands of communities, as protected areas end up being overfished illegally. The UN report sums up the situation starkly: “More needs to be done to ensure fisheries and aquaculture around the world are sustainable. Failure to implement adequate measures threatens the contribution of the sector to food security and livelihoods.” All well and good, of course, but there is one quite pressing snag: policing illegal fishing isn’t simple. The ocean is, after all, enormous. Often the political will isn’t there. The challenges are significant, but meeting them is integral to ensuring the oceans aren’t pillaged.

20% of all fishing is done illegally, according to estimates

Leading the fight against illegal fishing is OceanMind, a not-for-profit organisation that helps authorities to enforce regulations, and seafood buyers to make more responsible decisions. Partners include the UK government, the Thai government, the Seafood Task Force, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Conservation International, and Humanity United. Using satellites, machine learning and artificial intelligence to track and monitor fishing vessels across the globe, it’s been going since July 2018, and has been led by CEO Nick Wise. A software engineer by trade, Wise started out at Citrix Systems before getting involved at Satellite Applications Catapult, a UK-based technology and innovation company that offers satellite-based services. One of his first big projects was seeing how satellites could help in the maritime sector, which led to marrying the tech world with the world of illegal fishing. In 2018, when he was sure the tech could be applied effectively to help reduce this problem, Wise launched OceanMind. Two years on, and OceanMind is working with governments, local authorities, and the seafood industry. It provides surveillance and enforcement support, identifying suspected noncompliance vessels, location verification, legality of catch, provenance of fish and plenty more. “It’s estimated that 20% of all fishing is done illegally,” Wise tells Tech For Good. “So that’s one in five fish caught illegally. That’s a significant problem. Over three billion people rely on seafood for their source of protein, so being able to sustainably fish is essential for their food security. “On top of that, 12% of the world rely on the seafood industry for their livelihood. That means if fishing isn't sustainable and we're not continuing to produce the food that the three billion need, we're impacting the livelihood of the rest, potentially increasing poverty – particularly in some of the poorest places, because that's where the bulk of the fishing and many of the industries are actually located.”

In order to achieve sustainability, the amount of fish caught by all fishing vessels has to be predicted across different areas of the oceans, and then documented. Therefore illegal fishing, which goes under the radar, means keeping tabs on the amount of fish being taken from the ocean becomes a guessing game – and reduces the chances of achieving sustainability. As well as the impact on billions of livelihoods, the long-term environmental effects could be catastrophic: over-fishing can reduce biodiversity and damage ecosystems. Half of the air we breathe comes from the oceans; if the health of the oceans decline then the planet will become much less hospitable for human – and all – life. So it is perhaps surprising that no one was really doing what OceanMind does – using tech to connect the main players in the fishing industry. The fact there’s not a great deal of money involved in the industry, especially compared to defence – where satellite technology is often applied – means it’s usually down the list of priorities for governments. “One of the other major problems is fishing often happens out of sight, out of mind, it's over the horizon and far away, so it's very difficult to actually police,” says Wise. “And so the idea now that we can use satellites to find out what people are doing and then use AI to work out exactly what they're fishing for and where they’re fishing and how it's happening allows us to start to put that picture together and provide the intelligence that people need in order to enforce it.”

Nick Wise, CEO, OceanMind

Using satellites means we’re talking about a lot of data – up to a petabyte a year. There’s no way any human is ever going to process that amount – which is where AI comes in. It filters through the data obtained by the satellites to find noncompliant or suspected noncompliant fishing activities or vessels, so efforts can be focused on these suspected problem areas far more efficiently, rather than spending valuable time investigating vessels and activities that turn out to be compliant. In order to scale up massively, OceanMind is moving its data to the cloud. “We haven't been able to scale these sorts of capabilities to this degree before,” says Wise. “So while machine learning algorithms have been around for decades, and while people have been doing data science for longer than it was called that, we can now bring all this data together in one place to start to aggregate it and cross-reference and use algorithms to learn from all of it together. “To do that in the cloud makes it valuable and makes it possible for us to look at the global scale. So it's our vision to become truly global and look at everything everywhere, all of the time.” OceanMind has had help from Microsoft’s AI for Earth programme, which backs organisations and non-profits looking to address global environmental challenges. OceanMind partnered with the programme in January 2019, using Microsoft Cloud and Microsoft AI to process all of the world’s vessel-tracking data in real time. This volume of data processing allows OceanMind to increasingly work on a global scale. One of the most eye-catching projects it is involved in is Blue Belt, which is run by the Marine Management Organisation. It has established a network of marine protected areas around the UK’s overseas territories in the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. It totals over five million square kilometres, and OceanMind provides intelligence gathering and patrol support. “The big challenge is that these areas are remote,” says Wise. “So tech is necessary to know what's going on, and without the surveillance that you can get from satellites you wouldn't know what was happening. And that was the challenge in the past: we just didn't know. Therefore, declaring those areas as marine reserves was difficult. So technology is the reason why marine reserves exist in the blue belt because now you can see what's going on.

“One of the other major problems is fishing often happens out of sight, out of mind, it's over the horizon and far away, so it's very difficult to actually police”

“That really has allowed us to focus the data analytics on those areas and therefore cut down the amount of data that you need to look at. So we can just look at things that give us reason for suspicion and start to understand why vessels might be ‘going dark’ near to the zone or crossing the boundaries. What are they doing? We build a sort of fair intelligence profile, a sort of threat profile, that can then be acted on. And what we have found is that through publicising that we’re looking - whether it's diplomatic or whether it's in the media - it has had a deterrent effect on illegal fishing around those zones.” As well as working alongside governments to patrol the oceans, one of the key strategies for achieving sustainability is working with major supermarkets to ensure they are buying their fish from compliant sources. OceanMind helps UK chain Sainsbury’s verify that its FAD-free tuna has been caught in the correct way. FAD-free means fish caught by vessels that don’t use a Fish Aggregating Device, which attracts schools of fish underneath the boat. FADs don’t discriminate, though: they also attract plenty of other marine life, such as dolphins, turtles and sharks, which get scooped up alongside the fish. So Sainsbury’s offers a responsibly-caught source of tuna to its customers. “The problem for supermarkets is how do you tell for sure that its supplier hasn't just said ‘yes, of course it's FAD-free,’” says Wise. “Most of the traceability mechanisms in the seafood supply chain are essentially taken on trust. So what we do is we look at the movements of the vessel and determine whether, on balance, it was likely to be catching tuna FAD-free. So if Sainsbury’s is told it was caught without FADs, we can check it and confirm or otherwise. And if there's any conflict, it has a stern discussion with its suppliers to find out what's going on.” OceanMind has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. While many challenges remain – particularly relying on philanthropy to fund its work due to sustainability of fishing being low down on the list for most governments – Wise says its long-term vision is to use the technology to expand beyond fishing. OceanMind has partnered with the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust in the UK to help monitor the illegal salvaging of war graves, and it is also moving towards using satellite imaging to tackle another major area of concern in the oceans: detecting labour abuses on vessels. “Slavery on fishing vessels is a significant problem all around the world,” says Wise. “It's not just an issue confined to places like Thailand. It's well documented. We've even had migrant labourers in Scotland who have been working against their will and not being paid. So modern slavery is a real issue. And we think that we can do something about that.”