A new satellite-based surveillance system will keep a sharp eye on those plundering the oceans

The Economist
22 January 2015

THE Yongding is something of a ghost ship, disappearing and changing her name many times, along with her flag of registration. The 62-metre vessel was last spotted on January 13th in a marine conservation area in the Southern Ocean, blatantly hauling up outlawed gill nets laden with toothfish, a catch so prized that it is known as “white gold”. Interpol is seeking information about who operates the ship and profits from its activities, as well as those of two accompanying vessels, Kunlun (pictured above, landing a toothfish) and Songhua. In the vastness of the open ocean, policing vessels like Yongding, Kunlun and Songhua is hard. But it is about to get easier—for with just a few mouse clicks a satellite-based monitoring system, unveiled this week, will be able to compile a dossier of evidence about even the most clandestine fishing operations.

The scale of illegal and unreported fishing is, for obvious reasons, difficult to estimate. The Pew Charitable Trusts, an American research group, has nevertheless had a stab at it. It reckons that around one fish in five sold in restaurants or shops has been caught outside the law. That may amount to 26m tonnes of them every year, worth more than $23 billion. This illegal trade, though not the only cause of overfishing, is an important one. Stamping it out would help those countries whose resources are being stolen. It would also help to conserve fish stocks, some of which are threatened with extinction. It might even (if the more apocalyptic claims of some ecologists are well founded) slow down the journey towards a wider extinction crisis in the oceans.

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