If a fish falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it … wait, is that not how it goes? Let’s put it this way: If a fishing boat illegally scoops up a load of fish in the middle of the ocean and no one is there to see it, it’s still illegal -- but until now there has not been much anyone could do about it.
It turns out that satellites a few hundred miles above earth are a lot better at surveying the high seas than, say, a lone Coast Guard boat with a spyglass, especially in the most remote waters where fishermen may be used to acting with impunity -- ignoring quotas, transferring fish from ship to ship, dumping bycatch, even changing the vessel's name between ports like a Shakespearian youth slipping casually into drag. Thanks to new projects in high-powered satellite surveillance, it may be possible to put an end to pirate fishing once and for all.
This is good news for, let me see, about a billion people.
Illegal fishing takes as much as 26 million metric tons of fish from the sea every year, or about 1 in 5 fish sold, for a grand theft of $23.5 billion total (or, to put it yet another way, almost 16 times the GDP of Belize or a mere seventh of the market value of Facebook). That's money that doesn't go to the fishermen who play by the rules, while lawbreakers put pressure on already overfished stocks like tuna and swordfish. And while illegal fishing has been getting a lot of press -- notably, President Obama issued a memo on the subject last month -- it's hard to make a real dent in it without some serious international cooperation. Ships need to be traceable as they travel from one country's maritime oversight into another's, and enforcement needs to be stern enough that the risks of fishing illegally outweigh the rewards.