Aug 4, 2020 - Science

Satellites track illegal fishing from orbit

Satellite image of a large-scale lighting vessel in North Korean waters. Credit: Planet

Satellite image of a large-scale lighting vessel in North Korean waters. Credit: Planet

Satellites tasked with keeping an eye on the Earth have helped researchers uncover large-scale illegal fishing operations in North Korean and Russian waters.

Why it matters: Satellite data is giving researchers and governments a bird's eye view of what's happening on Earth, allowing interested parties to see more than they could by just monitoring land and sea from the ground.

Details: More than 900 fishing boats coming from China in 2017 and 700 in 2018 were found illegally fishing in waters off North Korea, according to the study published in Science Advances last month detailing the findings.

  • Those vessels caught more than $440 million worth of Pacific flying squid, according to the study.
  • The satellite data — provided by the company Planet and others — also helped the scientists spot 3,000 North Korean ships fishing in Russian waters in 2018.
  • The study's authors used machine learning and radar data that can pierce clouds to get a holistic view of what was happening at sea.

The intrigue: North Korean "ghost boats" — empty ships or ships with human remains aboard — have been washing up on Japanese shores for years, and the authors of the study now think that these illegal fishing operations are related.

  • Illegal Chinese fishing in North Korean waters may be displacing North Korean fishing boats, which are then fishing in farther-afield areas that they aren't equipped for.
  • "It really indicates that this illegal fishing is not just an ecological or conservation problem, but it also represents a huge crime measurement," Jaeyoon Park, one of the authors of the new study, told me.
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