The US can do better to combat illegal fishing with commercial space innovation
Following last month’s Quad Summit in Tokyo, the leaders of Australia, Japan, India and the United States issued a joint statement that included the establishment of the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). A critical focus area of this effort is to detect and deter illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which massively degrades the ocean environment and the economies of our partner nations in the region.
I have worked to advance Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) to combat IUU fishing with the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under both the Obama and Trump administrations. Although MDA has traditionally been the purview of the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security, I recognized the value of a more whole-of-government approach and secured the Department of Commerce’s contributions to MDA through NOAA in 2020. A motivating factor behind this was NOAA’s leadership in reporting on international IUU fishing activity, of which China is a primary offender.
The IPMDA aims to leverage commercial technologies to collect and share unclassified data between existing regional fusion centers, allowing a faster, wider and more accurate picture of maritime activity in our partners’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Two of the key requirements to effectively counter IUU fishing are:
1) Detecting “dark targets,” or vessels with disabled Automated Information System (AIS) transponders (usually indicative of illicit activity)
2) Delivering that information in real time to fisheries enforcement officials.
These have been largely unmet objectives of national MDA plans for well over a decade. Consequently, regional security analysts have assessed that near-term success of the IPMDA will be difficult and expensive.
I have a different outlook, and the reason for that is the recent availability of several innovative technologies in the commercial space sector. First and foremost is the dramatic increase in intelligence-grade satellite imagery. Once restricted to the classified domain of the Intelligence Community (IC), high-resolution image data is being collected by private companies for government agencies, news corporations, research institute, and businesses to support such diverse applications as reporting on the war in Ukraine to searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. The U.S. IC has also recognized the utility of commercial data, and several governments are already analyzing satellite radar imagery to detect vessels engaged in IUU fishing.
The second development is the accelerated advancement of present-day artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) algorithms. AI/ML technology has been used to classify imagery for decades. The difference now is the remarkable rise in computing power that enables more data types and quantities to be processed more quickly. The IC has turned to the private sector here too for generalized geospatial intelligence analytical support, as has the NOAA, DOD and several advocacy organizations and nonprofits specifically for countering IUU fishing.
The third and truly transformational technology is space-based edge-computing. To eliminate IUU fishing, fisheries enforcement agents must be able to catch illicit fishers in the act, which is extremely difficult due to the hours of latency introduced by: downloading satellite data to ground processing systems; disseminating that data to regional fusion centers which apply AI/ML-enabled analysis to detect and identify offending vessels; and then transmitting that information to local enforcement agents.
By performing the vessel detection and identification analysis on orbit, actionable IUU fishing information can be delivered to those who need it directly and in near real-time.
These three technologies have yet to be combined into an operational system. Yet, the startup Exo-Space will be conducting a pilot project to do so later this year with Thailand’s Department of Fisheries. If successful, the IPMDA can succeed much sooner than expected.
IUU fishing has been a longstanding environmental challenge, but only in the last few years has it been identified as a global maritime security threat. The former Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Karl Schultz made such a statement in September 2020 when I joined him during the release of the U.S. Coast Guard IUU fishing strategic outlook. In July 2021, the current Commandant Admiral Linda Fagan signed the implementation plan for this strategy, which includes an initiative to implement innovative technology by “staying abreast of private-sector technology solutions to IUU fishing … and seek opportunities to collaborate with them.” The solutions exist, and the time is now for the Coast Guard to lead the U.S. government in acquiring and using them.
Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., is a former acting undersecretary and assistant secretary of commerce, acting and deputy administrator of NOAA, member of the White House Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, director of the office for the DOD Executive Agent for MDA and oceanographer in the U.S. Navy. He is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC and member of the American Security Project.