By: David Ingram

The maritime officers who patrol the most vulnerable parts of the ocean haven’t always operated with the most advanced technology, often relying on pen and paper.

Meaghan Brosnan remembers first boarding illegal fishing vessels off Alaska more than a decade ago as an active-duty officer in the Coast Guard, clad in a dry suit and armed with a pen and paper to record violations.

One day she ran out of the paper forms she used to fill out information about violations, “so the only option I had was writing numbers and master names on the back of my hand.” Later, she washed her hands — and looked down to realize that she had mistakenly erased her only records for three separate boardings.

The maritime officers who patrol the most vulnerable parts of the ocean, from the Galapagos Islands to the coasts of Africa, haven’t always operated with the most advanced technology. That’s set to change when some of them soon get an upgrade: a smartphone app, designed to be the first of its kind to be widely available and linked to a massive database of past fishing violations.

The app, named O-FISH, was built to be used by rangers who enforce fishing restrictions in dozens of protected marine areas, allowing them to search for and enter information about unlawful fishing even when they’re in remote spots not connected to the internet.

A lot of those records are still kept on paper, said Brosnan, who’s now the marine program director for WildAid, an environmental nonprofit in San Francisco that’s deploying the app with the help of MongoDB, a tech company that specializes in databases. She said the electronic records will be more efficient, as well as easier to keep track of.

“You’re not losing the record of a boarding when the wind blows it overboard,” she said.

For environmentalists, it’s a long-awaited turn toward digital record keeping, the equivalent of when police officers first got laptops in their patrol cars years ago to be able to look up information about suspected speeders. (O-FISH is an acronym for Officer Fishery Information Sharing Hub.)

“It makes it more time-efficient. The rangers can rapidly gather the information they need and just download it,” Brosnan said. “And you’re not spending a whole other day when you get back to port entering information.”

Rangers may also be able to spot repeat offenders more easily or learn whether a vessel has a history of having weapons on board, she said. WildAid and MongoDB are testing the app and plan to start deploying it first in Ecuador and Gabon.

Illegal fishing remains a worldwide problem for the health of the oceans. Unreported and unregulated fishing takes in 11 million to 26 million metric tonnes of fish each year worth $10 billion to $23 billion, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

There are more than 15,000 marine protected areas around the globe covering an area the size of North America, but only a small fraction have active conservation efforts. WildAid has set a goal to help local authorities protect 250 of them by 2025, up from 60 that the nonprofit helps in now.

Battles over illegal fishing sometimes become flashpoints in international conflicts, as with a flotilla of 260 mostly Chinese fishing vessels off Ecuador that recently drew the attention of U.S. national security officials, according to The Associated Press.

And technology is increasingly part of the strategy to protect sensitive areas. Last month, researchers published a study of a Chinese armada that was stealthily fishing in North Korean waters and was only later detected with radar, satellites and other methods.

“If you want to think about threats to national security, it starts in the maritime,” said Daniel Schaeffer, a senior officer for maritime security at the Pew Charitable Trusts. For island nations in particular, he said, “it’s a source of food, a source of employment and also a source of revenue,” so if a fishery becomes unstable, a whole region may suffer.

Schaeffer, a former Coast Guard commander who isn’t involved in the O-FISH project, said it has promise because it was designed to meet specific needs of people on the front lines.

The project is an example of how slowly it sometimes takes for digitalization to catch up to reality in corners of the world where there aren’t huge profits to be had for big tech companies. Someone has to volunteer to build the apps and figure out a solution to software fees that can be too steep for nonprofits or government agencies to pay.

But the app is also launching as smartphones have reached near-saturation points even in many poorer parts of the world, where people have come to rely on cheap data plans, inexpensive devices and apps like WhatsApp to communicate or transfer money.

“The smartphone and the fact that it’s in everyone’s pocket is still a relatively new thing in the arc of technology,” said Sahir Azam, chief product officer at MongoDB. And for nonprofits that patrol threatened areas of the ocean, “technical digitalization may not be the top of the list” of things to pay for, he said.

MongoDB, based in New York, developed the O-FISH app for maritime rangers to use for free as a kind of showcase for database software that can sync up information after having been out of cellular or WiFi range. (It’s also based on open-source technology, so licensing isn’t an issue.) The company sells similar tech to cruise ships and airlines, Azam said.

Other software has been available, including an app used by fisheries enforcers off the coast of California, but it’s too expensive to deploy broadly, said Bob Farrell, a former California fisheries enforcement officer who consults for WildAid.

The coronavirus pandemic has added to the urgency, according to WildAid, because funding for the patchwork of enforcement agencies has been slashed at the same time illegal fishing has continued to rise.

“Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, an increase in piracy in the region has occurred in the last six months, and knowing if a vessel has weapons onboard would be extremely useful to a boarding officer,” said Karima Cherif, a program manager for WildAid who helps monitor illegal fishing off Gabon in central Africa.

Cherif said she envisions enforcement agencies’ overhauling their patrol strategies based on better data, focusing on areas where there have been repeat violations. She also said authorities from neighboring countries — such as the “shark highway” in the eastern Pacific Ocean — will be able to share data and work together more closely.

“The shark highway is a natural waterway where many illegal fishing takes place, and two countries such as Costa Rica and Ecuador could potentially share boarding data and protect a very important and remote area,” she said in an email.

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About WildAid

WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to protect wildlife from illegal trade and other imminent threats. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $308 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too. 

Journalists on deadline may email communications@wildaid.org