Natural Resource Development
US Coast Guard
Fighting Illegal Fishing
AI as a weapon to defend the seas
By Alex Appel

ach year, tens of millions of fish are caught illegally.

The United Nations estimates the illegal fishing economy is between $10 billion to $24 billion a year.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) is an international problem that reaches every coast, river, and stream. Alaska is no exception.

According to the University of Washington’s Sustainable Fisheries project, Alaska fisheries may be the best managed fisheries in the world, yet IUU still impacts Alaskans.

“IUU does happen on high seas and in international waters, where those products can then enter the legal market,” says Greg Smith, communications director with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “This increases the supply of seafood, which in turn dilutes the value of Alaska seafood.”

IUU is also an issue of national security, according to Ritwik Gupta, deputy technical director at the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), a civilian organization within the US Department of Defense (DoD) that helps national security agencies adopt commercial technology.

“IUU fishing… very acutely impacts economic security of, not only the United States, but also of its allies,” Gupta says.

View from Above
One of DoD’s recent initiatives to stop IUU is yielding results and contributing to a larger movement to end illegal fishing, domestically and on the high seas.

In 2021, DIU ran a contest called the xView3 Challenge. Programmers from around the world submitted algorithms using artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor the high seas. This was the third xView programming challenge run by the DIU.

The winners of xView3 were announced in January 2022. In August of this year, DIU revealed that the five winning algorithms are being used by several maritime law enforcement agencies and collaborators across the world, including the European Space Agency, the US Navy, the US Coast Guard, the US Department of Transportation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“The US Coast Guard was a developmental partner for xView3 and has found tremendous use for the developed set of algorithms,” says Rear Admiral Andrew Sugimoto, commander of the Coast Guard’s Eleventh District. “xView3 has enabled us to get a better view of large portions of the ocean in an automated fashion.”

What makes these algorithms special is how they utilize synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

Almost 70 percent of the Earth is covered by clouds at any given moment, according to NASA. On top of that, a slew of other factors can obscure a typical camera, including tree canopies and night-time darkness.

A screenshot of xView3 outputs in the SeaVision platform. Red dots indicate vessels detected by synthetic aperture radar that were not broadcasting an automatic identification system. Yellow dots are radar-detected vessels that correlate with an identification broadcast.
A screenshot of xView3 outputs in the SeaVision platform. Red dots indicate vessels detected by synthetic aperture radar that were not broadcasting an automatic identification system. Yellow dots are radar-detected vessels that correlate with an identification broadcast.

Defense Innovation Unit

Officers of the US and Philippine navies use SeaVision to track vessels during a 2019 maritime partnership training activity.

Petty Officer 1st Class Gregory Johnson| DVIDS

Close-up photograph perspective of officers of the US and Philippine navies using SeaVision on laptops to track vessels during a 2019 maritime partnership training activity
“How do you solve that? By being the light,” Gupta says.

SAR uses polarized microwaves to image the Earth. Radar waves in specific orientations are sent out, and when they hit objects, they bounce around and return to the satellite. The waves are small enough that they can pass through clouds.

It’s similar to the technology used in distance sensors on cars, according to Gupta. But the SAR on satellites is much more precise than what is in the latest Honda.

After the images are collected, machine learning algorithms paint a detailed picture: where vessels are, how large they are, what they are doing and, based on that information, what are the odds that they are engaging in illegal activity, Gupta says.

Dark Vessels
Fishing isn’t the only concern. IUU is associated with drug smuggling, human trafficking, and modern-day slavery, according to the DIU. IUU also accelerates the impact of climate change, the DIU reports.

“Traditionally, sailors manually review all obtained intelligence, such as satellite or aerial imagery for a vessel of interest,” Sugimoto says. “With the accurate automation provided by xView3, analysts can now simply filter detected vessels to find the ones of interest.”

One of the outcomes of the challenge is an interactive map showing vessels at sea across the world. This map is on the US Department of Transportation’s SeaVision website.

“The xView3 Challenge was a great opportunity for us to advance state-of-the-art technology for detecting dark vessels,” says Paul Woods, chief innovation officer for Global Fishing Watch, a nonprofit that integrates data analytics to support ocean conservation. “We are leveraging the learnings from the competition to advance our efforts in creating a free and open map that reveals all industrial human activity at sea.”

Global Fishing Watch partnered with DIU to run the xView Challenge program. The Coast Guard, NOAA, and the National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office also supported the challenge.

A DIU press release stated that xView3 “[motivated] several concrete actions that have improved maritime security,” but did not specify what those actions were.

Gupta did not share how many vessels were apprehended specifically because of this technology. That information is considered sensitive, he says, and furthermore, “Our detections that we provide are one piece of knowledge that’s part of a larger arsenal of information that our partners use to make decisions.”

Guarding the Pacific
DIU’s xView Challenge is not the only maritime enforcement initiative targeted at IUU.

An international mission happens close to home each year: Operation North Pacific Guard (NPG). The operation is run by the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC), a multilateral conservation group that seeks to preserve Pacific salmon and steelhead trout stocks.

The Coast Guard and NOAA are two of the agencies involved in running NPG. In 2021 and 2022, NOAA and its partners patrolled almost 30,000 miles and boarded dozens of boats.

In addition to illegally caught salmon on the high seas, NPG patrols were looking for driftnets, which are large, unanchored nets that float in the water. Driftnets are notorious for high rates of bycatch, and the United Nations established a global moratorium on them.

Although there were around forty violations found in 2021, in 2022 there were no signs of people intentionally fishing salmon illegally, and NPG had not encountered driftnets since 2019, according to Julie Fair, public affairs officer for the Alaska Region of NOAA.

“It is likely that, at least in the near term, NPG has significantly curtailed this highly destructive practice in the North Pacific,” she says.

All Hands on Deck
Other actions are taken on land to preserve the oceans and protect fishermen. Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, along with three of their colleagues, introduced the Fighting Foreign Illegal Seafood Harvest Act of 2022.

The FISH Act would, among other things, instruct the Coast Guard to increase at-sea inspections of foreign vessels suspected of IUU, have NOAA create a blacklist of parties that have engaged in IUU and other maritime crime, and have the executive branch inform Congress on technology that can be used to combat IUU.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck effort to crack down on foreign fishing, to keep our fisheries sustainable, and to focus on actors who are engaged in this kind of illegal fishing,” Sullivan says.

A lot of those actors are international rivals.

The IUU Fishing Index, a website developed by fisheries consulting firm Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd. and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, analyzes various factors, including coastal sizes and port management, to determine how well a country monitors and addresses IUU fishing. China and Russia were ranked as the worst countries in the world in the most recent assessment, based on information from 2021.

China especially is notorious for its “dark fleets,” or unreported fishing vessels. A 2020 study from the global affairs think tank ODI (formerly the Overseas Development Institute) found China had almost 17,000 vessels in its distant-water fishing fleets, including 1,000 vessels registered in different countries.

More than one-third of vessels that were caught engaging in IUU between 2010 and 2022 were Chinese, according to a 2022 study from the Financial Transparency Coalition.

The Problem Is Global
“It’s kind of a witch’s brew of elements that not only harm the environment, harm the oceans, [and] harm the sustainability of fisheries; there’s human suffering that goes within this,” Sullivan says.

For example, West African coastal countries lose more than 37 percent of their seafood to IUU fishing, and this is driving people to flee their homes, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime reports.

Supporting the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, crew from the US Coast Guard cutter Oliver Henry approach a Philippine-flagged purse seine fishing vessel in the North Pacific Ocean on March 31, 2023.

Chief Warrant Officer Sara Muir| US Coast Guard Forces Micronesia |DVIDS

Close-up photograph perspective of two individuals from the US Coast Guard on a small boat as cutter Oliver Henry approach a Philippine-flagged purse seine fishing vessel in the North Pacific Ocean on March 31, 2023
Senator Dan Sullivan discussing the Seafood Reciprocity Act of 2023 with an Alaskan fisherman in Kodiak on August 17, 2023 on a clear, bright sunny day out on a dock area
Senator Dan Sullivan discussing the Seafood Reciprocity Act of 2023 with an Alaskan fisherman in Kodiak on August 17, 2023.

Office of Senator Dan Sullivan

“This is an issue that kind of really crosses over from different federal agencies, not just your traditional fisheries agencies like NOAA and the Coast Guard but into the Pentagon and in the Navy,” Sullivan says.

And technology will play a large role in patrolling the seas, according to Sullivan.

“The problem is huge. The problem is global,” Sullivan says. “Americans think it’s not hard to find a ship in the big Pacific Ocean, or the big Atlantic Ocean, but it is hard. And so having available technologies to track, particularly these suspected IUU fishing vessels, we think is an important component and will only increase in importance in the years coming.”

He says the FISH Act of 2022 goes hand in hand with other legislation he is proposing, including the US-Russian Federation Seafood Reciprocity Act of 2023.

Sullivan is especially concerned about sanction loopholes that allow Russian fish to be imported to the United States.

Russia blocked the import of fish from the United States in 2014, but the United States still allowed Russian seafood imports until 2022, after Russia openly invaded Ukraine. The new sanction does not affect seafood caught in Russian waters and processed elsewhere, however. According to Sullivan, “elsewhere” means China.

“Then it gets sent back into the US market, almost duty free, so it’s essentially laundering Russian seafood,” he says. “And this is hundreds of millions of dollars of seafood very negatively impacting our fishermen and seafood industry.”

The Seafood Reciprocity Act of 2023 would stop this by banning all Russian seafood from entering the United States, including fish processed in other countries.

“It literally took a war to make good progress,” Sullivan says. “Now we made good progress, we got to close that loophole.”

Defensive Technology
As long as IUU remains a global security concern, more so than a mere obstacle to fair commerce, DoD will be on the case. Military-grade technology is already yielding results and contributing to a larger movement to end illegal fishing, domestically and on the high seas.

Algorithms submitted to the xView3 Challenge, including the five winning ones, can be used by any country in implementing their own monitoring system, according to Gupta. Thus, AI will continue to monitor fisheries and enforce maritime law going forward.

“In the end, fighting the environmental and economic scourge of IUU fishing and tracking illegal shipping will require a concerted and collaborative effort amongst nations, NGOs, and the private sector,” the DIU press release stated. “xView3 is a prime example of how the US security community can lead the way in making progress on these objectives while also addressing some of its own intelligence needs for pennies on the dollar.”