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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

How Earth Observation Data Can Help Mitigate Illegal Fishing and Endangered Species Loss

"Due to the increased interest in the illegal capture and trade of the Totoaba fish, the Vaquita Porpoise is now in extreme jeopardy of becoming extinct."

In March of last month, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) slapped new trade sanctions on Mexico due to its failure to control the capture and trade of the Totoaba Fish and the Vaquita Porpoise - two highly-endangered species native to the marine waters of Mexico.

CITES has now instructed nations around the world to halt all commercial trade with Mexico involving CITE-listed species, which comprise over 3000 types of plants and marine animals, and cumulatively account for millions of dollars worth of wildlife products a year.

The Chinese covet the Totoaba fish for its swim bladder - which is thought to have benefits in Chinese medicine as a cure for numerous diseases and health problems. Totoaba swim bladders have been illegally captured, dried, and smuggled out of Mexico for years, often transiting through the US before arriving at their final destination in China. The price for these swim bladders is extremely high, fetching fishermen up to 4000 dollars a pound - which is almost half of the yearly salary of most legally-operating fishermen in Mexico.

Due to the increased interest in the illegal capture and trade of the Totoaba fish, the Vaquita Porpoise is now in extreme jeopardy of becoming extinct.

But what is it that puts so much pressure on the remaining Vaquita population?

Fishery bycatch due to Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is the primary concern for the world's last remaining Vaquita. It is estimated that nearly 1 in 5 Vaquita porpoises will become entangled and drown in illegal gillnets in Mexico meant to capture Totoaba - something that is incredibly common amongst illegal fishing operations.

The Vaquita Porpoise is the rarest and most endangered marine species globally, with estimates showing as few as just ten left in the world. Unless immediate action is taken and succeeds, we will soon lose the species altogether.

To mitigate the extinction of the Vaquita Porpoise, Mexico must begin to increase its enforcement of illegal fishing, often involving dark shipping organizations, and remove the vast majority of ghost nets set to capture Totoaba fish.

One strategy for minimizing the effects of illegal fishing and ghost nets is to employ broad-scale identification and tracking of known or suspected dark vessels involved with illegal fishing, which can be done using highly accurate and timely earth observation data and imagery.

Private companies like Spire Global, ICEYE, and Kleos Space help public and private entities monitor overfished and protected marine areas with satellite data and imagery that can identify dark fleets and enforce maritime law with a more effective and affordable approach compared to traditional fisheries enforcement.

The above scenario is just one example of how illegal fishing impacts vulnerable marine species around the globe, and this particular situation is far from a stand-alone occurrence.

Below, we outline a couple more examples of how illegal fishing proves detrimental to endangered marine species and explore how fisheries management can be improved with space-based monitoring and detection services.

The Humpback Dolphin (Senegal)

The West Atlantic Humpback Dolphin is one of the world’s rarest and most endangered dolphin species. Many of these dolphins call the dense mangroves of Senegal’s Sine Saloum Delta home, but they continue to face threats that could result in the local population dwindling to extreme and critical endangerment.

To date, an estimated 1500 Humpback Dolphins are still alive and well, but the lack of fisheries enforcement, particularly involving monofilament fishing nets, is driving these numbers far below necessary conservation levels.

The fact is that while monofilament fishing nets have remained illegal in Senegal since 1987, these nets can be seen on almost every private and commercial fishing vessel operating in their waters. It comes down to a sheer lack of enforcement, with authorities in local fisheries seemingly ignoring the ongoing problem.

Monofilament fishing nets are transparent and extremely strong, and when animals like manatees, turtles, or the endangered Humpback dolphins get entangled in them, there is little hope of escape. To make matters more problematic, these fishing nets often drift out to sea or get caught within benthic surfaces and rocks, where they continue to trap all sorts of marine animals and bring them to their end.

If those with a stake in the local fisheries of Senegal wish to protect these endangered species and mitigate the populations from dwindling to extinction, swift action must be taken.

To take a step in the right direction, authorities could employ earth observation data to identify and track such fishing violations, including the identification of abandoned ghost nets at sea - which would eradicate a large portion of species loss due to entanglement.

However, without a push for enforcement, these tools and resources would prove impractical - contributing little to no change in the problem.

Endangered Sharks (The Republic of Congo)

It’s no secret that sharks are an essential component of the health and productivity of marine ecosystems, and research has proven time and time again that without healthy shark populations, all other components of such ecosystems suffer.

The story is no different in the Republic of Congo than in other parts of the world. Illegal fishing has seen a continuous uptick along the nation's coastlines over the past decades, and while the Republic of Congo has banned shark fishing in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) since 2001, the problems persist and continue to grow.

Not only is shark meat consumed by local and international communities in Africa, but the demand for shark fins abroad in places like Asia pushes fishermen to ignore national conservation laws - especially considering the overall lack of enforcement.

While part of the problem is undoubtedly due to a lack of capacity and resources for fisheries enforcement, a bigger issue might be at play.

To truly mitigate the problems of IUU fishing in the region, authorities require broad-scale insights to fully understand where their limited resources can make the biggest impact. Space-based data and monitoring can do just that - providing governments and conservation authorities with up-to-date information on how illegal fishermen operate and bypass fishing regulations. By understanding where the bulk of illegal fishing occurs and by whom, resources can be deployed with confidence to mitigate the loss of the 40-some shark species in the Republic of Congo’s coastal waters.

Another huge benefit of data-backed vessel monitoring moves past the act of illegal fishing itself and into how these fish and shark fins are transported to end consumers. ‘Transhipment’ is a term that describes the transfer of fish stocks from one vessel to another, often from local fishermen to international trade boats delivering marine food products internationally.

One key way authorities can begin to set the tone for enforcement is by identifying transshipment occurrences before stocks depart to their end destinations. If shipping organizations can be confidently identified and backed by irrefutable data as playing a role in the illegal transfer and trade of these protected marine species, sanctions can be placed on individual ships or entire organizations. This could help minimize the benefit for illegal boutique fishermen to continue the illegal capture and sale of endangered shark species.

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