Scientists Use Large Birds to Spy on Illegal Fishing Boats and Human Traffickers

The fight against human trafficking and illegal fishing has gone on for many years. And it’s been getting harder to track these illegal activities.

Until now.

A team of marine ecologists recently found a way to bring illegal fishing boats and human traffickers to justice. They use an unlikely tool: large seabirds know as albatrosses.

Boats all across the oceans have an Automatic Identification System (AIS), a tracking system that broadcasts the ship’s position, course, speed, and other information. Most boats use AIS so they can see other boats in their vicinity. However, some boats turn off their AIS system so others don't see the suspicious activity happening around them.

To help combat these illegal activities, Dr. Henri Weimerskirch, a marine ecologist at a French National Center for Scientific Research in Chizé, France, and his colleagues went to albatross breeding colonies in the Kerguelen Islands. The Kerguelen Islands are located in a remote area of the southern Indian Ocean near Antarctica. There, his team attached a GPS antenna, a radar detector, and another antenna to 169 juvenile albatrosses.

“They are large birds, they travel over huge distances and are very attracted by fishing vessels,” Weimerskirch said. These characteristics make them the perfect bird for scientists to track ships sailing through the Southern Ocean.

After Weimerskirch and his team taped the equipment to the albatrosses, they set them free. From November 2018 to May 2019, the researchers tracked them. Albatrosses typically fly next to fishing vessels, making them stealthy animals capable of finding out who has their AIS turned off. When Weimerskirch and his team got the birds back, they learned that out of the 353 boats with AIS installed, only 253 had theirs turned on. When they took the birds to international waters, they learned that 37% of vessels had their AIS system turned off.

Many vessels turn off AIS because they are engaging in illegal fishing or human trafficking. But, with information gathered by means of the albatrosses, government officials can pinpoint the exact locations of the boats and download the information in nearly real-time.

Illegal fishing has many effects on the economy and the well-being of marine animals. Overfishing can lead to the destruction of entire ecosystems, and globally is estimated to cost $22.2 billion. Illegal fishing also contributes to the worldwide problem of human trafficking. In addition to illegal fishing, human traffickers are enslaving people to work on their boats, which provides free labor for the criminals. This, of course, means greater profits.

Even though AIS and albatrosses are helping lower the rates of human trafficking and illegal fishing, there is still room for improvement. The next step for Weimerskirch and his team is to expand the investigations to places such as Hawaii, New Zealand, and the South Georgia Islands. They’re also hoping that they can prove that other sea birds can act as spies. Ultimately, these developments will not only help monitor and reduce the number of boats that turn off their AIS, but will also help lower the illegal activity happening in international waters.

[Sources: Smithsonian Magazine ; The New York Times ]