Slavery and overfishing at sea cannot hide from these researchers


A tracking system designed to help ships avoid colliding with each other has become an important tool for detecting bad behavior on the high seas. Researchers can now put a spotlight on businesses that dominate fishing in unregulated international waters, where it is easier to get away with overfishing. And it gives us a better idea of ​​how widespread slave labor can be on fishing vessels.


Two recently published articles use this technology, the Maritime Automatic Identification System (AIS), to make fishing at sea a little less secretive. The first study, published in the journal An earth On December 18, the origins of thousands of fishing vessels at sea are traced back to large companies that keep seafood on store shelves. Other researchers use AIS to reveal markers of forced labor on fishing boats, published in the journal today Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). All of this makes it easier for companies to respond to abuses they commit at sea.

The technology, the Maritime Automatic Identification System (AIS), has actually been around for about two decades. Basically, vessels carry around a box that sends out radio signals that anyone else can pick up. These radio signals share information about the ship, an identification number and other things such as its size, rate and speed. It is supposed to help vessels spot each other so that they do not get in each other’s way.

Satellites can also record these radio signals, giving researchers a new look at the high seas – international waters that make up nearly two-thirds of the world’s oceans. In 2014, Google and environmental organizations launched Oceana and SkyTruth Global Fishing Watch, an initiative to track fishing boats around the world as a way to prevent and possibly hold vessels responsible for abusive practices. Global Fishing Watch, which is now its own non-profit organization, uses AIS and smaller national vessel tracking systems to create an almost real-time timeline that tracks the movement of approximately 60,000 commercial fishing boats.

It was a game changer for Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor in New York University’s Department of Environmental Studies. She turned to Global Fishing Watch to identify for the first time seafood companies that own vessels fishing on the high seas. “Just in the course of my project, new technology made the research possible in a way that was not there when the project started,” Jacquet says. The edge. In 2018, her team compiled a list of the top 10 corporate actors in sea fishing, including Dongwon Group, which owns the popular tonic brand StarKist.

“There are few laws and regulations that apply to the high seas, and that are used by these companies to do what they want,” says Daniel Pauly, a renowned marine biologist who destruction of fish populations around the world. He insisted on a complete ban on fishing on the high seas. (Pauly is on the board of directors for Oceana, but was not involved in Jacquet’s study.)


Contemporary slavery is another problem on the high seas. Up to 26 percent of the 16,000 industrial fishing vessels would probably use forced labor PNAS study published today. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 people work on those ships.

The study authors used AIS data from 2012 to 2018 to study the behavior of vessels already documented with slavery. In this way they could see how those ships behave differently from other ships: they stay away from ports and spend, for example, much more time on the high seas. The researchers used the information to build a computer model that could identify vessels that exhibited behaviors that indicated they could also rely on forced labor.

“This research, this article, it could not have been done five years ago,” says Gavin McDonald, lead author of the study. “There would simply be no way to locate these many vessels on a global scale without Global Fishing Watch.”

There is still a lot of elbow fat that converts the data from AIS into research that could have an impact on the responsibility of the fishing industry. Data scientists from Global Fishing Watch have tried to automate this process in the past, but scraping the internet could not get the same results. “You end up on one level, but you actually have to dig deeper,” says Nate Miller, a senior data scientist at Global Fishing Watch who co-authored Jacquet.


Jacquet and Miller’s team for this project did exactly that. One of their colleagues found that different fishing vessels at sea shared the same address, even though they listed different owners. She searched the address on Google Maps, zoomed in to see the sign on the building, and tied all the ships to Pacific Fishing & Supply in Hawaii. This fulfilled one of Jacquet’s expectations for this study, namely to identify new players on the high seas, as much of the spotlight so far has been on companies in Asia.

More transparency has already forced some companies to act. The Walmart Foundation Funded McDonald’s Study Following a 2015 Investigation The guardian and The Associated Press reveals that Walmart sold shrimp linked to slave labor.

If the open sea is not so lawless in the future, we can thank such researchers. Their work could inform a new treaty being negotiated by the United Nations. If it comes into its own next year, it could establish protected areas in the open sea to protect marine life.


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