Conservationists were eager to track grey reef sharksâ€™ as they swamÂ across a protected shark sanctuary in the South Pacific. Excited researchers watched the movements of tagged sharks leaving the Marshall Islandâ€™s Bikini Atoll. Suddenly, eight tags were beelining across the ocean toward the island of Guam.
The scientists thought they had stumbled acrossÂ some unknown migration.Â Â â€śNope,â€ť movement ecologist Darcy Bradley,Â told them. â€śYour tags are on boats.â€ť
Technology is helping ships find and extract ever-larger quantities of ocean life for human consumption. Now itâ€™s also being used to stop it. Bradley, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara, said the South Pacific researchers were too late. Bradley had informed authorities, but by then the illegal fishing boats nabbing grey sharksÂ in the sanctuary (commercial sharksÂ fishing is banned within an area covering more than 2 million square kilometers) were already thousands of kilometers away.
That wasnâ€™t the case in Europe this month whenÂ policeÂ caught 79 suspected tuna smugglers through Operation Tarantelo.Â Europol says it used the traffickersâ€™ tablets, phones, GPS devices, and catch records to track down 80,000 kg (88 tons) of illegal bluefin tuna. Law enforcement agencies in Span, Portugal, and Italy uncovered false papers, fake boat bottoms, and a massive smuggling ring to bring the fish to market.
Money in illegal seafood is massive. In Europe, the volume of illicit bluefin tunaÂ sold last year was double the annual legal trade, which isÂ estimated to be around 1.25 million kg (1,377 tons), according toÂ Europol. The profits are larger too. Illegal fishing is the worldâ€™s sixth most valuable crime, reports the non-profitÂ Global Financial Integrity). That was illustrated by Operation Taranteloâ€™s confiscation of US$576,000 in cash and seven luxury vehicles. And thatâ€™s only one species. Overall,Â nearly aÂ quarter of seafood humans catch each year is fished illegally.
What can be done about it? One of the major problems is keeping track of illegalÂ vessels. â€śMother ships,â€ť or enormous fishing vessels that may stay at sea for years, can offload illegal catches onto other boats, which sell the harvest at distant harbors. Satellites and automatic identification system (AIS) tracking devices are now being repurposed to monitor fishing effort. AIS devices,Â originally designed to avoid ship collisions, send back signals to reveal a shipâ€™s location, identity, and speed. A recent study published in Science (paywall)Â analyzed AIS messages from more than 70,000 industrial fishing vessels between 2012 to 2016. The data showed the scaleÂ of the industry that must be tracked over at least 55% of ocean, an area four times larger than agriculture. Of course, manyÂ illegal vessels arenâ€™t tracked at all.
But safe harborsÂ must also be eliminated. Europe has among the strictest controls in place to track landings of seafood. IrregularitiesÂ in production numbers were the first sign that tipped off authorities to the illegal tuna ring. No such tracking regime exists in countries like China and the Philippines, where many officials may be willing to look the other way. The spread of high seas fishing, which takes place outside of individual nationsâ€™ economic zones is where many illegal fishing fleets operate.Â High seas fishing is dominated by just five countries, SmithsonianÂ reports: China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Their cooperation will be needed to reign in illegal operations.
There are signs that things are changing. An international effort is underway to enforce a â€ślegal, sustainable, and transparentâ€ť tuna supply chain by 2020. Indonesia recentlyÂ banned foreign fishing fleets and transshipment at sea, forcing boats to return to port to offload catches. That constrained tuna supplies by nearly doubling the price of some species, primarily yellowfin tuna and skipjack tuna, in local markets according toÂ Singaporeâ€™s Straits Times.
Whether Indonesia will manage its resources to sustain them into the future or merely shift overfishing practices to local fleets remains to be seen.