Google Earth reveals unreported fishing

Screen shot 2012-09-19 at 1.24.15 PMIn the Persian Gulf, large, semi-permanent fish traps take advantage of tidal differences to catch a wide variety of marine species. These traps, called fish weirs, have been used around the world for thousands of years, but only recently have researchers quantified what they catch using imagery captured from space.

In a new study published today in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, Sea Around Us Project researchers used satellite imagery from Google Earth to estimate that there were 1,900 fishing weirs along the coast of the Persian Gulf during 2005 and that they caught approximately 31,000 tonnes of fish that year. This catch is almost six times larger than the official amount (5,260 tonnes) reported by the seven countries in the region to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.


This study highlights the utility of Google Earth and other remote sensing tools for validating catch statistics and fisheries operations in general.

You can find out more about the study here:
Press release from the University of British Columbia,
Web feature summarizing the study from The Pew Charitable Trusts,
Journal article published in ICES Journal of Marine Science.

Al-Abdulrazzak D and Pauly D (2013) Managing fisheries from space: Google Earth improves estimates of distant fish catches. ICES Journal of Marine Science. doi:10.1093/icesjms/fst178


Ambassador to West Africa

DSC03963by Dyhia Belhabib

“Our driftnets don’t produce discards.”
“We don’t have illegal fishing – it’s illegal.”
“Your methods are correct, but your results don’t make sense.”
“Don’t tell them we fish in their waters, they will deny us access.”

These were some of the amazing comments I heard during my short visit to seven West African countries earlier this year as part of the “Sea Around Us Project and PRCM: Marine Conservation Research, Collaboration and Support in West Africa.” (PRCM is the Regional Marine and Coastal Conservation Programme for West Africa). During my trip, I met with fisheries experts, researchers, decision-makers, NGOs and industry representatives to ground-truth the catch reconstruction results for the different countries.

I landed in Dakar on 4 April and met with the USAID Collaborative Management of Sustainable Fisheries in Senegal (COMFISH) team early the next day. Going through the presentation of Christopher Mathews (director of USAID/COMFISH in Senegal) for the upcoming meetings, made me realize how sensitive the subject of catch reconstructions was, and how diplomatic I would need to be. I would have to choose my words wisely.

The morning of April 6th, the Senegal workshop began. Around 85 people showed up, notably, the Department of Fisheries (DPM), the Fisheries Research Institute (CRODT), WWF, industrial and artisanal fisheries representatives, the Department of Fisheries Monitoring and Surveillance (DPSP), the US Navy, the local university and women from the fish processing industry, as well as the media. The main goal of the workshop was to validate catch reconstruction results and identify potential collaborators under the project in West Africa. I remembered that in 2012, Senegal denied the existence of any illegal activities in its waters and under-reporting as well, so we had to show some examples to demonstrate that Senegal was not an exception. With Duncan Copeland, our coordinator in West Africa, we prepared a “why bother?” presentation where we brainstormed with the audience on illegal fishing and under-reporting.

The following day, I presented technical details and major results of the catch reconstruction, along with the first estimates of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Dougoutigui Koulibaly, the executive secretary of the Industrial Fisheries Association had a comment, and I was preparing myself to be really diplomatic and nice. He said: I couldn’t eat lunch; if your estimations are remotely correct – and according to the audience, they seem to make sense – we are in trouble and we need to act now. I thought that we had come a long way from last year’s sentiment of, “We don’t have illegal fishing – it’s illegal.” One of the recommendations resulting from the workshop that had to be sent to the minister of fisheries was to create a working group to validate the results by 15 May. Senegal was ready to move ahead, and the people from the administration showed a strong will to participate.

Our next stop: Nouadhibou, Mauritania. We landed in Nouakchott, the capital city, and drove across the stunning, sandy desert to Nouadhibou to meet with staff of IMROP, the Mauritanian Institute of Fisheries Research. The meeting, although very casual, took around four hours and we discussed every single point of the methods. The organiser had us meet with the Association of Artisanal Cephalopod Fishermen with whom I used some mixed academic-Algerian Arabic to make myself understood. I implanted keywords such as “domestic,” “industrial“ and “China” in their minds, waiting for them to blow up. It didn’t work that well, as the fishers told me they didn’t believe the fishing access agreement with China would be of any benefit or harm to them. The fact that China is building infrastructure in the ports probably helped them forget the negative impacts of overfishing. But they said they had noticed shrinking fish sizes, shrinking catches and shrinking prices. We met with the subsistence fishing community and asked about their fishing traditions so that we could consider this community in our reconstruction of fisheries history. While the representative of the national federation told us that they don’t have under-reporting anymore, and illegal fishing is rare, his colleague said they don’t know what is happening in their waters, and there is probably discarding and illegal fishing. Two very different versions; the most realistic one
was obvious.

On our way back to Nouakchott, we stopped for around 15 minutes at the beautiful National Park of the Banc D’arguin (PNBA). I couldn’t possibly go to West Africa without stopping at its most famous national park, where overfishing in the adjacent waters has severely depleted fisheries resources.

I managed to get to Monrovia by traveling from Mauritania through Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), then Accra (Ghana) before heading back towards Liberia. It was a ridiculous, 48 hour-long trip. I arrived in Monrovia, hardly looking like a human being, and about one hour later, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Bureau of National Fisheries (BNF). One-on-one meetings, it turned out, were the best choice for confirming or contradicting the information others could have given me. The SeaMen Workers Union, a group representing the benefits of workers in the fishing industry, talked about industrial discards and illegal Chinese pair trawling in Liberia. Coordinators and project managers talked about non-commercial fisheries, and the statistics division provided data on discards, transshipping and the real ownership of vessels. Liberia was one of the most challenging countries to reconstruct catches for, as information was scarce. Now it has been enriched by solid, if anecdotal, knowledge. Recently I also learned that after months of battling and collaboration with East African countries, Liberia has won a $2-million case against a Korean operator fishing illegally in its waters!

Crossing the border is always a pain in West Africa; however, the Liberia-Leonean border guards were surprisingly nice and welcoming. The beauty of the villages and the smiles of the children waving at us made the trip less painful and reduced the stress caused by our car breaking down in the middle of the bush. We finally made it to Freetown. The next day, we went to the Ministry of Fisheries, where I had the pleasure of meeting the deputy minister, and a while later, the minister himself. Thereafter we headed up to Guinea – the black hole of illegal fishing in Africa. Before even crossing the border, the friendly Sierra Leone immigration agents warned us: “They are hostiles.”

Indeed, I would add that the country is not only the black hole of illegal fishing, but of corruption, as it was present even in the lowest levels of society. Alkaly Dooumbouya, our collaborator from the fisheries research institute of Conakry (Centre National des Sciences halieutiques de Boussoura; CNSHB) organized a workshop inviting the department of surveillance, university representatives, the ministry of fisheries and the CNSHB. However, it was more appropriate to meet Mr Kaba, the representative of artisanal fisheries, before the workshop, to grasp a realistic picture of fisheries in Guinea. From Mr Kaba, we learned about the politics of fisheries in Guinea, and that the minister of fisheries himself had a fishing company whose vessels were often spotted off Sierra Leone! To tackle this conflict of interest, a new department of surveillance was created under the supervision of the Préfet maritime, an important figure who made himself available for a meeting after the workshop. I also had the pleasure of meeting with some of the legends of fisheries in West Africa, like Ibrahima Diallo, a Guinean fisheries scientist who worked on establishing time series for Guinean fisheries despite many technical and financial challenges. We discussed our research, and in general, people agreed with the methods and partial results, were shocked by the cumulative graphs, but finally accepted the overall outcomes.

After seven nights in Conakry, I was more than relieved to leave Guinea, just because of the perpetual harassment by police officers and immigration agents, some of whom were former mercenaries for Kaddafi.

I was happy finally to see the Bissau-Guinean flag. The immigration checkpoint was in a little village with a friendly imam checking passports. (It occurred to me that this might be an easy way in for drug dealers, as Guinea Bissau is coming to be known as the new Columbia of the world.) Once at the hotel, there was barely enough power for internet access, but we could contact our collaborators from the Bissau-Guinean ministry of fisheries and organise a meeting over Easter – a four-day holiday for 13% of the population that makes the entire nation happy. Meanwhile, we met with local experts from IUCN and discussed possible collaborations, especially on the topic of marine protected areas. We presented our results to Dr Victorino Nahada, the head of the fisheries department. He understood the basic concept and the rationale, as well as the data we used. He didn’t have any negative nor positive comments, but said politely that Guinea-Bissau doesn’t have an industrial fleet, they don’t land here and transhipping is illegal. Then we showed him our satellite pictures of a reefer (refrigerated container ship) operating consistently in Guinea-Bissau waters…

After a stop in The Gambia, I was getting ready to return to Vancouver where a lot of follow-up work was waiting for me. My journey in West Africa could be summarized as productive, intense, emotional and sometimes frustrating, but with a happy ending. I grew up during this intense one-month trip of workshop organisation, presentations and interviews, questioning and interrogations in seven countries of West Africa – amongst them some of the poorest countries in the world. I also learned how difficult it is to be a woman in the manly world of fisheries. I learned to be patient and diplomatic – an aspect of my character that I hadn’t known of myself before. I learned to interview people on very controversial topics and to gain their trust. I was particularly proud to get some of these countries out of their denial concerning illegal fisheries. By the end, I was deemed to be the Ambassador of the Sea Around Us Project in West Africa.

Chinese foreign fisheries catch 12 times more than reported

China DWF mapChinese fishing boats catch about US$11.5 billion worth of fish from beyond their country’s own waters each year – and most of it goes unreported – this is according to a new paper led by the Sea Around Us Project, published in the journal Fish and Fisheries.

The study estimates that China’s catch in foreign waters is about 12 times greater than what the country reports to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, an international agency that keeps track of global fisheries catches.

Much of the fishing occurs off the coast of West Africa.

You can read more about the findings at Nature, “Detective work uncovers under-reported overfishing.”

See the scientific article, published in Fish and Fisheries, here (open access).

And get the press release and associated materials, including a map illustrating where and how much Chinese vessels currently fish beyond their own waters.

On using catches to predict abundance

Factions among the fisheries community disagree on whether catch data – the amount of fish drawn from the sea – can be used to assess the health of fish stocks. In a comment piece published in Nature today, the Sea Around Us Project’s Principal Investigator Daniel Pauly shares his views, emphasizing that catch data are often the only type of data we have to tell anything about the status of fisheries.

While developed countries such as the US, Australia and those in Europe are able to use a variety of data, such as size, growth and migration information, as well as survey data, to conduct expert stock assessments, Pauly points out that these come at a cost: anywhere from US$50,000 to millions of dollars per stock. Such costs are not feasible for the majority of developing countries. Furthermore, for 80% of maritime countries, catch is the only data available.

In a second comment piece, Ray Hilborn and Trevor Branch from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, argue that there are other factors beyond the health of a fish stock that can account for changes in catch. Used on their own, catch data can create confusion and alarm about the abundance of fish stocks, they say.

Pauly agrees that catch data should be used with caution, but adds there is danger in undermining the value of this information. In most countries, the amount of fish caught is the only information available to assess stock health. “If resource-starved governments in developing countries come to think that catch data are of limited use, the world will not see more stock assessments; catch data will just stop being collected,” says Pauly.

The Sea Around Us Project, under the guidance of Pauly, is currently conducting a global evaluation of catch data, from 1950 to present, collated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Results so far reveal that many countries have underreported their catches. The extent of the underreporting is larger in developing countries (about 100-500%; Zeller et al. 2007) than in developed ones (30-50%; Zeller et al. 2011).

To see the full article, please go online to Pauly D (2013) Comment: Does catch reflect abundance? Yes, it is a crucial signal. Nature 494: 303-305.

Zeller D, Booth S, Davis G and Pauly D (2007) Re-estimation of small-scale fisheries catches for U.S. flag island areas in the Western Pacific: The last 50 years. Fishery Bulletin 105: 266-277.

Zeller D, Rossing P, Harper S, Persson L, Booth S and Pauly D (2011) The Baltic Sea: estimates of total fisheries removals 1950-2007. Fisheries Research 108: 356-363.

A journey to South America

A fishing boat at Taganga, a village in Colombia. (Photo: Robin Ramdeen)

by Robin Ramdeen

In the first week of November 2012, the 65th Annual Conference of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute (GCFI) took place in Santa Marta, Colombia. GCFI facilitates the exchange of experiences and ideas in fisheries science, management, governance, conservation and education. The conference was a testament to the region’s commitment to the stewardship of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and the marine resources therein. The Caribbean Sea is a special place for me, because I grew up in Trinidad and because I discovered my niche in Caribbean fisheries while doing my Master’s thesis on the fishing of queen conch in Tobago. The theme of this year’s conference was “Artisanal fisheries: importance, implications and challenges for management,” a topic which is familiar to many of us. Artisanal fishing is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as fishing carried out by individuals or households requiring low investment in technology and gear. By this measure, the majority of Caribbean fisheries operations are artisanal or small-scale.

The conference’s keynote speaker was Dr Ratana Chuenpagdee, who is no stranger to the Sea Around Us Project. Dr Chuenpagdee completed her PhD under Dr Daniel Pauly’s supervision in 1998 and is now the Canada Research Chair in Natural Resource Sustainability and Community Development at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s. She urged the GCFI conference participants to consider ways to elevate the profile of small-scale fisheries, which – in terms of providing employment for fishers and catches for human consumption – are simply “too big to ignore” [1]. Dr Chuenpagdee is a powerhouse, and I was eager to chat with her at a socio-economic café where I got the opportunity to ask whether we erroneously mislabel our fisheries as small.

In terms of technological capacity, small-scale fisheries are certainly “small” compared to industrial ventures, but they are rather large in terms of the employment they provide for fishers as well as the quantity of catch they supply for human consumption [2]. Undoubtedly, the dearth of quantitative catch data associated with small-scale fishing sectors perpetuates this false notion of their size. As Dr Pauly plainly states in his foreword to the book “World small-scale fisheries: contemporary visions” (edited by Dr. Chuenpagdee), “countries cannot be bothered with the logistical and administrative nightmare that monitoring and reporting on small-scale fisheries often represents” [3]. As a native of the Caribbean and a research assistant with the Sea Around Us Project, I feel it to be my duty to reconstruct this historical fisheries information.

During my presentation at the conference, I explained how using information on catch, effort and seafood demand (i.e., consumption, as per household surveys) allowed me and my colleagues to reconstruct total marine fisheries catches for 10 Caribbean island countries from 1950 to 2010. Unsurprisingly, these catch reconstructions illustrated a substantial level of under-reporting in the Caribbean. For example, the reconstructed catches of Haiti and Jamaica were 3 and 4.3 times higher, respectively, than catches reported by these countries to the FAO, where the data become part of the world “catch” database. Overall, approximately 5 million tonnes of unreported catches were estimated for these 10 Caribbean countries during the 60-year period that we examined, with an average of 54,000 tonnes of unreported catches each year. The main discrepancy was due to unreported and under-reported catches from the artisanal, subsistence and recreational sectors. However, reporting seems to be improving as unreported catches in the early time period accounted for 80% of reconstructed catches, as opposed to 50% in the present time period.

The presentation was well-received and I had a number of scientists and fishers as well as an anthropologist interested in learning more about the Sea Around Us Project. Despite the English-Spanish language barrier, the GCFI spirit demonstrated that we are just one planet, working together for our precious oceans – questioning, sharing and improving things.

[1] “Too big to ignore” is a research network and knowledge mobilization partnership which aims to address the issues and challenges facing small-scale fisheries;
[2] Jacquet J and Pauly D (2008) Funding priorities: big barriers to small-scale fisheries. Conservation Biology 22(4): 832-835.
[3] Chuenpagdee R, editor (2011) World small-scale fisheries: contemporary visions. Eburon, Delft. 400 p.

Underreporting in Madagascar

Fish catches in Madagascar over the last half-century are double the official reports, and much of that fish is being caught by unregulated traditional fishers or accessed cheaply by foreign fishing vessels. Seafood exports from Madagascar often end up in a European recipe, but are a recipe for political unrest at home, where two-thirds of the population face hunger. These are the findings of a recent study led by the Sea Around Us Project in collaboration with the Madagascar-based conservation organisation Blue Ventures. The research, published online this week in the journal Marine Policy, used existing studies and local knowledge to estimate total fisheries catches between 1950 and 2008. Read the full study here and the press release here.

Photo: Traditional Vezo fisherman and shrimp trawler, southwest Madagascar (photo credit: Blue Ventures).

Fisheries catch re-estimates for the Baltic Sea

Another piece in the puzzle of true global fish catches is now in press at the journal Fisheries Research. The work re-estimates total catches for the nine countries fishing in the Baltic Sea. The new estimates, a team effort by several Sea Around Us members and led by Dirk Zeller, are 30% higher than official reports for 1950-2007.

The full reference for the work is: Zeller, D., Rossing, P., Harper, S., Persson, L., Booth, S. and Pauly, D. (in press) The Baltic Sea: estimates of total fisheries removals 1950-2007. Fisheries Research.

Arctic Fish Catches Underreported

Fisheries catches in the Arctic totaled 950,000 tonnes from 1950 to 2006, almost 75 times the amount reported to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) during this period, according to a new Sea Around Us led study out this week in Polar Biology. The Arctic is one of the last and most extensive ocean wilderness areas in the world. The extent of the sea ice in the region has declined in recent years due to climate change, raising concerns over loss of biodiversity as well as the expansion of industrial fisheries into this area. This study offers a more accurate baseline against which to monitor changes in fish catches and to inform policy and conservation efforts. Find the full press release that accompanies the research here and coverage in Nature News here.

Colombian Fisheries Bigger Than Reported

colombian_flagA new study published online in Marine Policy last week shows that Colombia, like many other countries around the world, has been underreporting its marine fisheries catches. From 1950–2006, the Colombian catch may have been almost twice the landings reported by FAO on behalf of the country (2.8 times higher in the Atlantic Ocean fisheries; 1.3 times higher in the Pacific Ocean fisheries). Jeffrey Wielgus, a former visiting researcher with the Sea Around Us Project, is lead author of the study and Sea Around Us members Dirk Zeller and Rashid Sumaila are co-authors. The fourth author, Dalila Caicedo-Herrera, is a Colombia-based fisheries researcher. The article is titled: Estimation of fisheries removals and primary economic impact of the small-scale and industrial marine fisheries in Colombia.