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Tracking Dark Vessels

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EO and geospatial intelligence plays a key role in thwarting illicit maritime activities, promoting sustainability, accountability, and transparency. A conversation with Tony Long, Chief Executive Officer, Global Fishing Watch.

Recently, a Russian oil tanker, Kapitan Schemilkin, was found spoofing its Automated Information System (AIS) to create a proxy of its location. The 138-metre-long oil tanker made two trips using illegal techniques pioneered by Venezuela and Iran, as both countries are barred from exporting their oil.

Global Fishing Watch (GFW), which detected it, further revealed that Russia has amassed more than 100 tankers in order to build an alternative pathway to the oil sanctions imposed by the US amidst the war with Ukraine.

GFW used European Space Agency’s radar satellite imagery to display that the Kapitan Schemilkin was deliberately miscommunicating and was not travelling on its designated route. The ship claimed to be sailing off to Greece, but its signals depicted a location in the wrong part of the Mediterranean. It was also pictured near the shores of Malta and Northern Cyprus.

The suspicious journeys of the Kapitan Schemilkin. (Image: ©Global Fishing Watch)

Launched in 2016 by Google along with Oceana and SkyTruth, GFW provides a comprehensive view of commercial fishing worldwide. It also partners with leading global research institutions, NGOs, and governments, to promote maritime transparency and foster oceanic sustainability.

Automatic identification systems (AIS) are a crucial technology in tracking vessels around the world. Currently, only two percent of all vessels carry AIS. What can be done to increase the number of AIS devices?

The International Maritime Organization Convention for the Safety Of Life At Sea Regulation V/19.2.4 requires all vessels greater than 500 gross tonnage (GT) (irrespective of where they operate), all vessels of 300 GT and above on international voyages and all passenger ships, irrespective of size, to operate AIS. This is the only international mandate and leaves far too many vessels not required to operate AIS. That said, many countries and regional bodies are mandating the use of AIS as a condition of flying their flag or operating in their waters. The European Union, for example, requires AIS on fishing vessels down to 12 meters. Nigeria, Indonesia and Taiwan are among the other countries that mandate the use of AIS.

While regulations are one very direct way to increase the fitting and operation of AIS, it can be encouraged in several other ways.

For example, buyers could require AIS throughout their supply chain, which would help them conduct proper due diligence and act as a significant deterrent to IUU fishing. Owners and buyers could benefit from the insights provided by AIS, helping them demonstrate corporate responsibility in areas such as working conditions and safety – we’re testing if our AI models can indicate a risk of bonded labor or poor working conditions on fishing vessels. Financial institutions could require vessels to be fitted with AIS as a condition of insurance, and/or as a condition of financing.

As well as bringing the benefits of safety and improved compliance, AIS is cheaper to fit than alternative tracking systems. Class B systems – intended for vessels that aren’t required to use AIS under SOLAS, such as pleasure crafts and smaller fishing boats – are much cheaper, though they provide limited functionality. It’s important to keep costs as low as possible to encourage more vessels to fit AIS.

It is relatively easy to tamper with or spoof the AIS. What are the possible ways of preventing or minimizing the spoofing of AIS?

It is difficult if not impossible to completely stop transponders from being manipulated. This is difficult to do, probably impossible. Signals can be manipulated on board a ship or remote from it and AIS can also be simulated – so you don’t even need a ship to create false positions and tracks!

To tackle spoofing it is vital to be able to recognize when it is happening. If an analyst, or machine learning, can spot tampering then manipulating the AIS signal, instead of hiding a ship’s activities, simply highlights them. It’s a clear flag indicating the intent to deceive and therefore warrants deeper investigation.

Global Fishing Watch is working with the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit of the Department of Defense on a project called “HARMONIOUS ROOK — Situational Awareness for Intentional Disruption of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Users. Our work is focused on detecting false position data in the AIS used by ships. Some of these false positions result from GNSS interference.

How do you see maritime monitoring technology innovating and expanding in the future?

Key advances will be in the types of transponder that can be fitted. In smaller vessels, systems like Pelagic Data Systems are using mobile phone technology and the mobile network. Systems like CLS Nemo are developing more traditional vessel monitoring system, or VMS, models to make them more useful and sustainable in smaller vessels.

What is very likely is that trackers will get smaller and cheaper, or will be ‘leapfrogged’ altogether by mobile phones and satellite internet applications. It is also quite reasonable to say that a new technology will emerge that we can’t even imagine yet, such is the speed of advance in this area. For example, could a QR code printed on a vessel be detected and read from space?

Away from vessels allowing themselves to be tracked, we’re likely to see advances in the detection of radio frequency. UnseenLabs and Hawkeye 360 lead the way in the development of this system, which has the advantage of working in day, night, poor weather, through clouds and bright sun – all of which impact other systems to some degree.

What is very likely is that trackers will get smaller and cheaper, or will be ‘leapfrogged’ altogether by mobile phones and satellite internet applications

Illegal fishing has been on the rise as demand keeps rising yet the supply is falling short around the world. This incentivises fishing vessels to engage in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Is there a way to track and prevent such illicit activities with earth observation and satellite imagery?

The most important technology for tracking what vessels are doing at sea are systems which rely on vessels willingly broadcasting their positions using transponders. These include both open systems such as the automatic identification system (AIS) information that drives much of what Global Fishing Watch does, and the typically more closed systems such as vessel monitoring systems (VMS). One of our primary policy objectives is opening these VMS systems to the world and making the associated fishing activity they track more transparent.

The type of IUU fishing you ask about is generally behavior vessels wish to obscure from the world. These actors may not be visible on AIS or VMS systems, which can be disabled or manipulated by those wishing to hide. Global Fishing Watch is working on several approaches to gain a better understanding of what is missing from these voluntary systems.

Detecting presence and activity is one part of the problem, but to your question, it is important to note that IUU fishing is really three different categories of fishing activity. For something to be ‘illegal’ it means a vessel is not adhering to a relevant legislation or regulation or a local or regional authority does not exist. We work at a global scale and do not track this at a granular enough level to generally assign legality to activity.

Similarly, with ‘unregulated’ fishing, we do not attempt to map regulations to activity at scale. We do compile an aggregated list of known vessel fishing authorizations published by regional fisheries management organizations, but they are far from comprehensive and often out of date.

‘Unreported’ fishing, on the other hand, implies vessel activity which is not being reported at all. We believe all fishing should be reported. This is a key pillar of transparency and better ocean management. Our focus on finding dark targets and improving information about vessels not broadcasting on cooperative systems can be seen as a way of helping to address this aspect of IUU fishing.

What would be the impact of 5G-led near real-time connectivity and the massive increase in analytics due to AI and machine learning to thwart sea piracy and keep maritime trade safe?

We see a future where 5G, long-range radio (LoRa) and low-cost satellite (e.g. Starlink) connectivity make all points on the planet connected all the time. This means very low-cost tracking and continuous coverage are possible, along with collecting rich data from vessels at sea. Compliant vessels will be increasingly visible in maritime monitoring systems, causing non-compliant vessels to stand out more readily when they are in areas where they can be directly observed.

For non-compliant vessels, it will be increasingly difficult to remain untracked and undetected. Satellite remote sensing can detect radio frequency emissions from communications devices and navigation radars being used on non-compliant vessels, allowing them to be identified and tracked. Cargo and other shipping vessels are beginning to install localized sensors with satellite backhaul that have the potential to turn every compliant large vessel into a localized remote sensing hub.

AI and machine learning will turn the resulting flood of data into actionable insights, pulling out specific behaviors that indicate the presence of non-compliant vessels, as well as detecting patterns of risky behavior from superficially compliant and trackable vessels.

This stream of AI-produced intelligence will be increasingly available to vessel operators in real-time, at sea, as well as to enforcement and management authorities. We can expect that in just another decade or two the scope for piracy and other lawless activity at sea will be dramatically reduced.

If the bearer of the information is increasing the footprint or amount of data that can be carried, that will help.

Low-altitude systems such as OneWeb will allow for global internet coverage and are likely to play an important role in the sharing of vital data.

Source: Geospatial World