The government wanted to test a new method of enforcing the marine reserve’s boundaries and turned to Project Eyes on the Seas, an integrated platform that makes use of multiple data sources to analyze and interpret vessel behavior. The announcement of this new surveillance approach in early 2015 marked the first time a government combined designation of a marine reserve with a detailed strategy for remote monitoring and enforcement. This set a high standard for surveillance of remote marine protected areas. The test was successful and bolstered the case for designating the reserve.

The reserve’s waters encompass 99 percent of the Pitcairn Islands’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Residents can still engage in sustenance fishing within 12 nautical miles of the islands’ coasts. All commercial extractive activity is prohibited in the EEZ.

The monitoring trial took place from Jan. 1, 2015, through March 31, 2016. The British government and its partners wanted to determine the extent of potential illegal activity taking place in the territory’s waters and to verify that the technology could monitor a remote reserve of this size to enable effective enforcement. The FCO will coordinate development of a long-term surveillance plan using the trial findings.

The British government partnered with Pew, U.K.-based Satellite Applications Catapult, and the Swiss-based Bertarelli Foundation to conduct the trial. The Bertarelli Foundation provided funding to test a Wave Glider SV3, a floating drone developed by the U.S.-based Liquid Robotics, to gather information from the water’s surface to be incorporated in the analysis and to demonstrate that third-party information can help enhance identification of vessels in the protected area.

In the 13-month trial, Project Eyes on the Seas monitored the marine reserve for a total of more than 10,000 hours. During this time, AIS tracking detected 574 vessels within the Pitcairn EEZ as well as in a 100-mile buffer zone beyond those waters. Fewer than a third—29 percent—proved to be fishing vessels. This percentage fluctuated with the fishing seasons for different migratory species. Of the total number of vessels seen, only eight were referred to the U.K.’s FCO for further investigation because of potential prohibited activity within the EEZ; another 18 were flagged to determine if illegal fishing had taken place.

The monitoring identified up to 12 “dark vessels”—vessels that could not be detected using AIS alone—which were reported to the FCO. The ability to find these vessels highlights the unique capability of the Project Eyes on the Seas platform. The system integrates and correlates multiple data sources—from license lists to satellite-derived information to radar—that then can be assessed by trained analysts. The added ability to draw on remote sensors, such as Wave Glider, allows photographic identification back to a ship’s name or flag—one step further than satellite images. Other monitoring technologies cannot reach this level of detail, making it less likely that they can identify or locate fishers trying to hide from authorities.

The outcomes of this trial revealed that the Pitcairn Islands’ EEZ is a high compliance area, meaning that a relatively low level of illegal activity occurs there. Although some suspicious patterns were detected in the buffer zone, none of the vessels tracked within the Pitcairn EEZ showed behavior typical of illegal fishing operations.

The U.K. established the Chagos Marine Reserve in the British Indian Ocean Territory in 2010 and pledged protections for the waters of Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean in January 2016. Doing so demonstrated leadership in the global movement to safeguard critical ocean habitat. The lessons from this trial can now be used to help the British government complete implementation of its ambitious Blue Belt policy, the initiative intended to enhance marine conservation in the nation’s 14 overseas territories.

Source & Image credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts