Seabird ‘cops’ spy on sneaky fishing vessels

Science | AAAS | 1/27/2020 | Staff
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Sometimes fishing vessels vanish: Captains turn off beacons that broadcast their locations, leaving regulators wondering whether the boats are fishing illegally. Now, researchers have shown that albatrosses bearing small radar detectors can find these suspicious vessels—even in the middle of the open ocean. After a 6-month study with the large seabirds, the researchers estimate that more than one-third of vessels in the southern Indian Ocean are sailing undercover, confirming concerns about illegal or unreported fishing.

“These are animal cops,” says marine ecologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University, who calls the work “groundbreaking.” In the future, patrolling seabirds might help reveal fishing grounds that should be targeted for enforcement. “You’re empowering animals to survey their own environment for conservation purposes,” Worm says. “That’s pretty cool.” The strategy could also help albatrosses themselves, which can be killed when they get caught in fishing gear or accidentally eat baited fishing hooks.

Illegal - Fishing - Concern - Conservation - Biologists

Illegal fishing is a major concern for conservation biologists, especially in remote areas. Over the past decade, scientists have studied the problem with data from automatic identification systems (AISs) on ships, which include beacons that constantly send their identity, location, speed, and direction to satellites. To prevent collisions, all vessels about 20 meters or longer must have AIS transponders. Many smaller vessels also have AISs. The data are turned into real-time maps of maritime traffic, giving captains a bigger picture than provided by ship-borne radar alone.

But AISs can be turned off, even though they are required within 320 kilometers of shore—areas referred to as nations’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Researchers suspect that fishing vessels turn off AISs when they are fishing illegally or want to prevent competitors from knowing where they are hauling in a good catch. “It’s easy to understand why they turn it off,” says Henri Weimerskirch, an ecologist at the Centre...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Science | AAAS
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