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Lacey Malarky, an Oceana campaign manager on illegal fishing and transparency, monitors the GPS position of a fishing boat in the Atlantic ocean from her computer at the headquarters of the NGO Oceana on June 10, 2019 in Washington, DC.ERIC BARADAT

An organization dedicated to monitoring illegal fishing will use satellite data from a major Canadian space company to help guide offshore patrols and other enforcement activity.

Global Fishing Watch announced on Tuesday at a United Nations conference in Lisbon that it will use 14 years of archived data from MDA Ltd.’s Radarsat-2 radar satellite to identify previously unmonitored fishing activity. David Kroodsma, research and innovation director at Global Fishing Watch, said the analysis will help determine where and when coast guards deploy vessels and aircraft.

Mr. Kroodsma said it has been difficult to monitor activity at sea until recently. “You need to find the patterns of activities to inform where you focus your patrols,” he said.

According to one oft-cited estimate, “illegal, unregulated and unreported” (IUU) fishing accounts for about one in every five fish caught around the world. It’s often accompanied by forced labour, money laundering, tax evasion and other criminal activity, and is confounding to uncover: Offenders routinely hide vessel ownership, and regularly repaint, rename and reflag ships.

On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden signed a memorandum to combat IUU fishing. The White House said in a statement that the United States, the U.K. and Canada will launch an alliance aimed at increasing ambition and momentum in the fight against IUU fishing. Nearly two-dozen U.S. federal agencies are to publish a five-year plan to address the problem by the end of next month.

For years, private companies like MDA and organizations such as Global Fishing Watch have used analysis technologies to monitor illegal fishing. Most large ocean-going vessels are required to carry an automatic identification system (AIS), for example, which broadcasts a vessel’s identity and location and helps prevent collisions. Those data can reveal movements indicative of standard fishing techniques such as trawling.

Some illegal fishers turn off their AIS before venturing off-limits, such as within another nation’s territorial waters or a marine protected area. (They’re known as “dark vessels.”) Another tool, visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS) can detect bright lights at night, but criminals go dark to thwart it.

That’s where radar satellites come in. Unlike true-colour imagery of the sort available using Google Earth, they can survey large swaths of ocean even when they’re obscured by clouds or darkness. They can also be used to count metal objects in the water, and are therefore useful in identifying large ships.

Global Fishing Watch previously studied data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 radar satellite, which Mr. Kroodsma said produced “incredible insights.” However, those data only capture fishing activity within a couple of hundred nautical miles of shore. MDA covers much larger swaths of ocean, he said, and over a longer period. Because the satellites can detect vessels that have gone dark, the data can provide a more complete picture of fishing activity than AIS alone.

Mr. Kroodsma added that historical data reveal fishing patterns are quite predictable. “So if you can look at what happened the past five Junes in the southern part of the ocean, that gives you a sense of what will likely be happening this year to plan your patrols.”

He said his organization has identified hundreds of vessels fishing in North Korean waters in violation of UN sanctions. Mike Greenley, CEO of MDA, said some illegal operations co-ordinate the activities of as many as 300 fishing vessels, supported by others that resupply them with fuel and collect and freeze the catch.

“Historical analysis can allow you to analyze the behaviour of these operations and how they move,” he said, which can help enforcement officials in future operations.

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