Governments face a multitude of criminal activity and threats in their territorial waters every day. From pollution and wildlife crimes such as illegal fishing and oil dumping to illicit trafficking – everything from drugs to forced labor – these crimes are widespread and have drastic impacts on the environment, geopolitics, and homeland security.
Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) fishing is a problem so widespread that it has replaced piracy as the top global maritime security threat. With an estimated 20 percent of all caught fish captured illegally, IUU fishing not only threatens the marine ecosystem, it hinders fish-based economies as well. Fishing operations, both legal and illegal, often carry out human rights abuses, with migrant workers forced to work long hours for criminally low pay, sometimes under threat of force or debt bondage.
Already, governments are joining together to solve the issue of IUU fishing. In May this year, “The Quad,” consisting of the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia, launched the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness program, aiming to utilize technology and share information freely between stakeholders.
While this is a step in the right direction, in order to properly tackle all maritime offenses it is imperative to recognize that a unique characteristic of maritime crime is that these illegal activities tend to be connected to each other. A vessel conducting IUU fishing might also be using illegal labor or smuggling drugs. And yet governments still address each risk on an individual basis, leading to inefficiency or lack of oversight when it comes to catching these bad actors. A recent study found that 33 percent of fishing-related offenses from 2000-2020 (including illegal fishing, human rights abuses, and smuggling) were associated with the same 450 vessels and 20 companies.
To tackle the growing scourge of maritime crime – activity that poses geopolitical, economic, ecological, and human rights risks – authorities need to adopt a holistic approach to maritime domain awareness (MDA).
Various off-the-shelf MDA tools exist to address these respective threats. These tools – some of which are commercially available, some exclusively for government use – include ship tracking, pattern recognition, vessel information, and more. But the vastness of the ocean is such that there will always be spots left unmonitored by these basic systems, which are becoming less and less reliable. Vessels can turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals at will, while new technology has given criminals ways to spoof their tracking signals from a false location. These are conditions conducive to crime, and bad actors will continue to take advantage of lagging regulatory implementation to conduct illegal activities at sea.
A critical issue within existing regulatory systems and tools currently in use is that they are siloed. By only focusing on one offense and not sufficiently communicating between the various bodies who look for different types of illegal activity, authorities are slow to recognize many connected crimes.
Take, for example, the data from an expedition last year led by Sea Shepherds, a leading conservation organization, to locate a fleet of illegal fishers from China in the Pacific Ocean. Of the 30 vessels they observed, 24 had a history of labor abuse, past convictions for IUU fishing, and violating maritime law. The crew of one vessel, the Chang Tai 802, claimed to have been stuck at sea for years, while the Ocean Ruby, a fuel tanker servicing the fleet, was found to be affiliated with a company suspected of selling fuel to North Korea in violation of UN sanctions. Another fishing vessel, the Fu Yuan Yu 7880, was affiliated with executives who were linked to human trafficking.
Given that maritime crime is interconnected, authorities must do away with siloed approaches to MDA and adopt a more holistic approach to maritime security.
The key to achieving a comprehensive view of maritime risk is first by sharing information, not only between countries with a shared goal as in the case of The Quad’s fight against IUU fishing but also between the various enforcement agencies within a country. Secondly, authorities must utilize best-in-class technology and diverse data sources. Traditional manual methods of detection are incredibly time-consuming and far more prone to human error – suspicious activities are often overlooked, and even when they’re not, authorities are often bogged down in a futile chase after a convoluted paper trail in an effort to identify the owner or operator of a vessel.
On top of digitizing and streamlining manual processes, AI and big data are integral in aggregating relevant data sources across formerly siloed sectors – from port and vessel data to historical data of wind strength to data on vessel draft (which can be used to determine if it has loaded or discharged cargo). By simultaneously sifting through this data, analyzing it, flagging suspicious actions, and connecting the dots between them, AI can find the “needles in the haystack” that humans cannot.
For example, MDA-focused algorithms can find links between the actual fishing vessels, commercial supporting fleets, and their owners, providing stakeholders with a broader and more accurate picture of all entities involved in maritime crime.
The sheer enormity of the ocean and the unreliability of siloed data sources means that if government bodies are only looking at one aspect of risk, they are going to miss an ocean of suspicious activity. Only by adopting AI-driven, comprehensive regulatory solutions can we usher in a new era of MDA. The result will be healthier, safer waters, and smoother sailing for law enforcement worldwide.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email Editor@Hstoday.us.