Big Brother is watching

Vessel monitoring system (VMS) Vessel monitoring system (VMS)

The growing powers of state management of fisheries - and the introduction of more and more laws, regulations, and other restrictions controlling commercial fishing operations – continue to concoct complex systems of inspection and monitoring.

Big Brother will be watching all fishermen from mast top, if not from space. This is bad news for ‘fish pirates’, while, hopefully, not hurting honest, legally fishing people. Perhaps even helping them, especially when they have to be located while in trouble. Still…

The high seas serve as a ‘no-man's land’ to many hundreds of fishing vessels. Many national territorial waters are illegally exploited by brazen skippers. Hence, the fishing industry and law-abiding fishermen are faced with a problem either to join the illegal, cheating party, or keep bearing financial losses, due to unfair market competition, and having the ‘pirates’ whisk the fish that they've paid for the right to catch from under their noses. Here's where the Big Brother comes in as the sword-bearing Angel of justice and vengeance.

Joint venture
The Orwellian metaphor comes to mind also in view of a recently set up partnership between the NGOs Sky Truth and Oceana with Google in designing and initiating a system aimed at control and possible prevention of pirate fishing operations, employing a technology able to locate, track down and map from space illegal fishing going on in the world's oceans.

Global Fishing Watch (GFW) is the product of this joint venture. Still a prototype, it is an interactive web tool enabling anyone to observe the global fishing fleet in real time. GFW will reveal the intensity of fishing effort around the world (although it's only one of the factors contributing to decline of fisheries resources). It will keep a watchful eye on where each individual vessel is operating, and monitor the amount and composition of catches. Using a global feed of vessel locations extracted from Automatic Identification System (AIS) it will track data collected by satellite, revealing the movement of vessels over time and space, while automatically classifying the patterns of movement as either ‘fishing’ or ‘non-fishing’ activity.

It seems, however that the GFW will be joined by other Big Brothers, all looking over us to make sure we are behaving.  

NMFS, the U.S. Fisheries Service, considers direct information from seaborne vessels "critical for the responsible management and conservation of living marine resources". Collection of this information has been assigned to onboard observers/monitors sailing on commercial fishing vessels. They report directly to NMFS. The observers are employees of private companies contracted by NMFS and trained before deployment.

In 2013, 917 observers were deployed for 79,000 sea days by 10 contract providers for six fishery observer programs in 47 fisheries. They will personally monitor the catch size and composition and see that the onboard monitoring technology is not switched off. So, if you're not careful enough, don't be surprised if you come home to face your wife asking angrily about you kissing the female observer…

Recently the U.S. Government decided to charge fishermen with paying the monitors' wages and to program income from fines in its budget. In Massachusetts, the Governor, Senators and all Congressmen called the national administration to reverse this decision and continue the funding of at-sea monitoring. Otherwise, fishermen will have to bear the full cost of the monitoring programme, including fines. Bob Jones of the U.S. Southeast Fishermen Association thinks that with budgeting of fishing fines anyone can logically assume that NOAA law enforcement officers got to hustle-up enough fines to prevent budgetary shortfall.

Navy and Coast Guard have been demanding for years to implement a programme to monitor fishing boat operations, and now Kerala State may set up a fishing boat tracking system against infiltration threat through the sea, and to assist boats in trouble. With the help of GPS technology the security forces would always be able to locate the boats' position.

In the global free-market economy, private companies have fast smelled out how to turn Big Brother-type fishery monitoring into a profitable business. For example, Archipelago Marine Research Ltd. of Victoria, BC offers equipment and software specialised in monitoring fishing activity at sea, as well as training, consulting, and data-review services.

Tracking abuse
According to Ian Urbina of the New York Times, unnamed government officers suggest that to avoid the abuse or disappearance of seafarers, governments should impose more spot checks on ships returning to port and levy heavier penalties for incomplete crew lists. Ship-owners and crews must be required to report crimes at sea. Flag countries and their proxies should make public information on crimes by crew members and captains, and help to create and maintain an international database for tracking missing mariners.

The European Union has introduced its own satellite-based vessel-monitoring system (VMS), designed to continually inform the authorities on the location, course and speed of vessels, which has become a standard tool of fisheries monitoring and control worldwide. VMS is compulsory for all the larger boats in the EU fleet. The EU Commission can see to it that its rules are respected, while offering funding for Member States to acquire state-of-the-art equipment and to train their people to use it. 

FAO is trying to coordinate international efforts in Fisheries Monitoring Control and Surveillance (MCS) with the aim of reducing illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activities. This, in FAO's view, is also important for production growth and reduction of overcapacity and of IUU fishing, through effective governance. It estimates that the total IUU catch accounts for the major proportion of landings of some species.

It appears that fishing worldwide is going to be watched by a manifold Big Brother, and its sibling clones may keep multiplying. Rather inconvenient and unpleasant, but on the other side it may, just may, eventually help.



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