The history books teach that slavery ended, but it still exists; it’s just morphed its form—different commodity, different location, but same abuses. The commodity is seafood. The location, Southeast Asia. The abuses, forced servitude with all its ugly associations. Some people make a substantial living off illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, which fuels a dark underground. How is big data angling to stop it? Find out in our next two episodes.
Michele Kuruc: “People who were seeking better lives and, and coming to look for work were kidnapped by unscrupulous dealers, who forced them into lives we can’t even imagine.”
Ginette Methot-Seare: “I’m Ginette.”
Curtis Seare: “And I’m Curtis.”
Ginette: “And you are listening to Data Crunch.”
Curtis: “A podcast about how data and prediction shape our world.”
Ginette: “A Vault Analytics production.”
Ginette: “Welcome back to Data Crunch! We took a bit of a break over the holidays, and we hope you were able to too.
“So upward and onward to 2017. What are we up to this year? We’ll be finishing our data science history miniseries for you, and we’ll be meeting some really cool people from KDnuggets, Galvanize Austin, and Datascope in Chicago. But before we do those episodes, we have to pivot because with major recent developments, this particular episode deserves to come out now.
“The lives we can’t even imagine look like this according to the Associated Press. One Burmese man left his village when he was 18 years old. He followed a recruiter who promised him a construction job. When he arrived in Thailand, his captors held him with little food or water for a month. He was then forced onto a fishing boat. He was told that he was sold and would never be rescued. In that fishing environment, sometimes he worked 24-hours a day. He and his fellow fishers were whipped with stingray tails and shocked with electric devices. They were told during their time fishing that they would never be let go, not even when they died, and men in his similar situation were sometimes sold from ship captain to ship captain.
“If they tried to escape the work, they were locked in cages on remote islands. In the 22 years he was away from home, he asked to go home twice. The first time he asked, the company official chucked a helmet at his head, which left a bloody gash that he had to hold closed. The second time he begged to go home, he was chained to the boat deck for three days in the blistering sun and when the night came, it was rainy, and he could do little to protect himself from it. During that three-day period, he had no food. He amazingly fashioned a lock pick and unlocked his shackles. He knew if he was caught, he’d be killed, so he dove into the water in the cover of night and swam ashore, hiding for his life.
“You might ask why he didn’t go to local officials. The answer is he couldn’t because they might sell him back to the ship captains. So after eight years in the jungle hiding from the fishing companies, he finally got to go home because of the AP’s reporting. This is modern-day slavery. Every year, thousands of people are tricked or sold into this type of slavery in order to catch fish for lucrative markets.
“If you’ve ever read Solomon Northup’s gripping autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave, the similarity is eery. They are both free men who are initially unknowingly abducted. They’re shackled, beaten into servitude, and forced to work in harsh conditions for many, many years. Both are desperate to go home to their families, and both experience miraculous escapes from tyrannical systems. But unfortunately, not everyone escapes.
“This is a huge problem, and it’s frequently linked to illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, well known as IUU fishing. Unfortunately, IUU fishing is linked to some of the ugliest transnational crimes: modern-day slavery, human trafficking, drug trafficking, and gunrunning—all of which are often interconnected because criminals dabble in many different forms of illegal activity.
“So what is IUU fishing?
“It can be people fishing in an area that’s closed—which is generally a zone 200 nautical miles out from coastal countries; it can be fishing without a license; fishing prohibited marine species, fishing above a specific quota, or with illegal gear; and fishing and underreporting or not reporting the catch.
“Before we get to the data projects that tackle this particular issue, here’s some background on this surprisingly complex subject. Believe it or not, fishing is incredibly lucrative. Its net-export revenues are higher than the net export revenues of all other major agricultural commodities combined—think meat, rice, sugar, tobacco.
“I asked Michele Kuruc, the World Wildlife Fund’s Vice President of ocean policy, which markets are most lucrative, and this is what she said:”
Michele: “The three largest markets in the world for fish are the European Union, the United States, and then Japan. The US does import 90 percent of the fish we consume, and we’re a very lucrative market because we do pay high prices for the fish that we consume.”
Ginette: “Because a lot of money pours into the fishing market and it’s a hard market to track, there’s a large illegal fishing industry, which brings in this much money:”
Michele: “Between ten billion, that’s billion with ‘B,’ and 23 and a half billion per year.”
Ginette: “To give you an idea of how much money this rakes in, think about this: that’s enough money to buy every person in Norway a Grandiosa pizza and a Freia chocolate bar every day for an entire year. Or better yet, that’s enough to purchase every person in Iceland five new snowmobiles.
“Source after source used these numbers.”
Adam: “Ten to 23 billion dollars in losses each year.”
Ginette: “And that’s because . . .”
Michele: “There’s really only, so far, one relatively credible global study about what the value of illegal fishing is globally.”
Ginette: “In fact, this study’s findings are conservative.”
Michele: “Being a practitioner for about three decades, and much of that being a prosecutor for the United States Government of fisheries crimes, I can say with a high degree of confidence that most of these numbers are very conservative.”
Ginette: “As a side note, as we were looking into this and recognizing that we aren’t money experts, we realized that it would be fascinating to have Planet Money take an in-depth look at the intricacies of how money drives global illegal fishing. With their expertise, that is bound to be a fascinating story.
“As Michele spoke with me about what’s been happening in Southeast Asia, she made this important connection:”
Michele: “The idea that somehow our market was inadvertently fueling that is not such a stretch because what many of these people were forced to do was to fish in what they call low-value fisheries. Those fish were caught, ground up into fish meal, and feed to shrimp farms in Southeast Asia, and the US imports huge quantities of shrimp.”
Ginette: “Now, keep in mind two things: first, 20 to 30 percent of the world’s catch is illegal—and this is likely a conservative estimate—and second, as already noted, the United States imports 90 percent of its seafood. The US market has likely inadvertently fueled modern-day slavery, as have the other top fish markets, and as we face that shocking realization, we can harness our market power to help stop it.”
Michele: “One of the trends that I’m happy to say we’re starting to see more of in the world today, are these major markets recognizing their power to influence for good.”
Ginette: “And the EU has led this charge.”
Michele: “The European Union was actually first in putting in place some legislation designed to try to prevent illegal fish from coming into its market. They understood the dynamics of the market and how important it is to use market pressure to try to achieve some of these goals. The Europeans were eager to have the Americans join them because they know what a powerful market force we are.”
“So President Obama back in June of 2014 basically announced that he wanted to close the US borders to black-market fishing, and to have the president of the United States talk about illegal fish was something that in all my years of doing this, I could have never really have imagined. Just a few days ago, the US government just enacted a new set of regulations specifically directed at finding and stopping illegal fish from coming into our market.”
Ginette: “This is the major development I mentioned in our intro. Just last month, the US government finalized new procedures for record keeping, reporting, and permitting to protect seafood at risk of IUU fishing or fraud. This legislation aims to protect people in the US from getting certain seafood products that are in any way a violation of our regulations, foreign laws, international treaties, or conservation measure of national and international fisheries that we associate with. Essentially, this legislation mandates that seafood importers report information about their catch to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
“If you’re like me and didn’t know anything about fishing legislation, this is a major development in the fishing world. We’ve followed the EU, and hopefully other countries will also follow suit.
“Even with this advancement, though, there’s a long way to go. The oceans are a wild frontier, and a lot happens out there that people who are, and who aren’t, in the industry don’t see or even hear about. IUU fishing threatens the ocean’s ecosystem, which in turn threatens not only the livelihoods of honest fishers who work hard to play by the rules, but also the lives of impoverished people who use it as an important source of food.”
Adam Reyer: “I don’t know to what extent the average person’s aware of the dire situation the oceans are in.”
Ginette: “This is Adam Reyer, project director for Global Fishing Watch, a transparency project founded by Oceana, Skytruth, and Google, and partly funded by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
“And, yes, Leonardo DiCaprio feels strongly about our oceans.”
Adam: “The UN FAO . . .”
Ginette: “The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization”
Adam: “. . . has said that one third of marine fish stocks are overfished and that 3 billion people actually depend upon seafood for a source of protein.”
Ginette: “Currently, fish provide more than 2.9 billion people with at least 20 percent of their animal protein needs, and it’s a crucial source for them of micronutrients.”
Adam: “The oceans serve enough protein to serve about 400 million meals a day, and that number could and very well should increase to a billion by 2050, when we have a population of 9 billion, so if we don’t save the oceans now, that 400 million goes away.”
Ginette: “If fisheries are overfished, which often happens through illegal means, it threatens future marine life, which once devastated, won’t recover.
“Unfortunately, when more fish are caught than can naturally replace themselves, recovery may not be possible, at least for a very long time.
“To fishers who fish legally and abide by required standards meant to help fisheries sustain themselves, IUU fishing feels unfair to say the least.”
Will Ward: “I’m sympathetic to the fact that people that are trying to survive do desperate things, but when you’re trying to rebuild your country’s resources to make it sustainable, it’s really hard to tell American fishermen they’ve got to live by sets of rules when you allow illegal actors to come in and do something with impunity because they don’t have a permit. There’s no tracing them; there’s no tracking them, and so this kind of stuff goes on all over the world.”
Ginette: “This is Will Ward. He’s the president and CEO of Captain’s Finest Seafood, a lawyer, and two-time Florida representative to the Gulf of Mexico fisheries management council.”
Will Ward: “There’s been cases that have been cited by the Coast Guard where there’s been repeat offenders upwards of 10 times being caught doing this stuff. If I do it, if I do it 20 times and you catch me once, guess what, 19 times I won. The one time I lose, you get my boat, you send me back on a bus. Okay, I just build another boat, and I go do it 19 more times.”
Ginette: “Will is reference U.S. Coast Guard data in this quote:”
Will Ward: “They estimated that upwards of a million pounds just off the state of Texas was poached in one year.”
Ginette: “Now, you may be asking yourself, is it really possible to overfish the oceans? And is there any historic proof?
“The answer is ‘yes.’
“Mark Kurlansky gives a strong example of overfishing in his book, Cod: A Biography of The Fish that Changed the World—it’s a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it. He explains the history of cod in North America. North America, particularly Canada’s New Foundland, had incredible stocks of cod, a fish that was highly sought after in Europe. There were even rumors that there were cod as big as a man. And as it turns out, Kurlansky cites that in 1895, a fisher caught a six-foot cod that weighed 211 pounds off the coast of Massachusetts, and many people and organizations believed this fish supply would never end, particularly the Canadian government. After World War II, however, huge trawlers from Europe and then Canada started catching massive amounts of fish.
“The Canadian Government wouldn’t listen to the people of Petty Harbour in the 1980s when they said the stock was threatened by offshore trawlers, and in 1992, when the Northern cod decreased to 1 percent of its previous level, the Canadian government saw that the Atlantic Northeast Cod Fishery was passed the breaking point, and they declared a moratorium. This ended 500-years of northern cod fishing history.
“Twenty-five years after the moratorium started, the recovery is still dismal, and the ban is still in place because cod has not come back, even though people predicted it would revive after a few years. Overfishing does happen, and it leaves its mark.
“Unfortunately, IUU fishing often causes overfishing. It’s hard to catch. The supply chain is riddled with potential problems because there are tons of moving parts that are hard to track. So let’s break down the supply chain:
“First you have your regular fishing boat out at sea that might catch fish illegally.
“Sometimes, the catch is transferred at sea to a reefer boat, or refrigerated boat. That reefer boat usually brings supplies and new crew members and also hauls away the catch. By collecting the catch, these reefer boats allow regular fishing boats to stay at sea for long periods of time, sometimes even years, and that’s a red flag for human abuses. When this transfer, known as a transshipment, happens on high seas, it often mixes illegal fish with legal fish, and at that point, the illegal fish take on the documentation of the legal fish. And this is one of the main ways that pirates hide their piracy. It makes it nearly impossible to catch them when this happens on the high seas.
“Also, because reefer vessels don’t actually fish, often, they’re not monitored or required to have catch documentation.
“There are also boats that have full processing plants on them. These boats can catch and box fish on one boat, which can also lend itself to illegal catch.”
Michele: “Sometimes they have factory ships out at sea where they can do some processing right out on the ocean.”
Ginette: “This initial segment of the supply chain is where a lot of illegal activity happens and pirates exploit strange loopholes. Michele gave a great example of this:”
Michele: “There is a movie that stars Nicolas Cage. And out at sea in less than 90 seconds, he’s able to change the registration of a ship. Now he’s trafficking in firearms, but it’s the same principle with fish. You can change the flag. You can get online and you can change the registration with a minimal amount of money with very few questions asked. Then that ship becomes basically the property of that country. They can deny a foreign government the ability to get on board and inspect it.”
Ginette: “We’ll be talking a little later on about one data project that helps tackle this initial stage of the supply chain.
“Eventually, in one form or another, the fish hits a port. Sometimes that port isn’t well regulated.
“For example, in one of the largest busts of an illegal fishing business, officials found that one pirate had at least one shell company registered in Namibia, which had a poorly regulated port. For several years, Namibia’s Walvis Bay had only one inspector regulating arriving fishing ships, and that inspector usually didn’t see them at night. This meant that ships with illegal catch could easily get away with it.
“Now after this fish hits port, it can go on an international travel journey that may make you jealous.”
Michele: “It goes for more processing. It goes for packaging. Sometimes there are many, many, many countries that one piece of fish might touch.”
Ginette: “Eventually, it makes it way to US ports, where it’s inspected in a very large shipping container.”
Michele: “Only about 1 to 2 percent of shipments actually get inspected when they come across the border. And if you can picture a container like you would see on a semi-tractor trailer out on the interstate, oftentimes they are temperature controlled because you are shipping fish across the world frozen, and packed from ceiling to floor with boxes and layer after layer after layer. When you think about the logistical difficulty of actually really searching, inspecting something like that, the volume is incredible because we’re importing 90 percent of the fish we consume, billions of pounds come across our borders, and just think about the customs inspectors, how many different products, not just fish but all kinds of things that are coming across our borders all the time. It’s a challenge.”
Ginette: “Sometimes pirates may have stacked the very first row of the ship container with legal fish, while hiding the illegal fish behind it, hoping that officials won’t have time to look beyond the row. As transnational crimes go, sometimes they might pack drugs inside the fish or seafood product, also hoping that it won’t be caught.
“So after all of that the fish arrives at your local store or restaurant, where you can’t tell if the catch is actually legal or illegal.
“To add to the complexity of this supply chain process we’ve just reviewed, there’s a lot going on within our government related to this product and how it gets to us.
Michele: “Fish is a complicated commodity in the US.”
“Fourteen different federal agencies have a piece of this, so, so already you can see it’s complicated. There’s Defense, there’s Commerce with NOAA, there’s the State Department with diplomacy, there’s the US Trade Representative’s Office, the FDA, Customs and Border Protection, maybe those are some of the obvious players, and then, then there are a number of others as well.”
Ginette: “It is difficult to catch pirates’ illegal activities because, as we’ve just explained, there are many complex layers involved with the bait-to-plate process. However, there are some incredible data projects out there that aim to stop IUU fishing. One of those projects is Oceana’s Global Fishing Watch run by project manager Adam Reyer. This project, a website that’s free for you and me, opens up a whole new world. It allows us to see much of the fishing activity across the entire globe. So, that very first stage of the supply chain that we just discussed—where most illegal activity takes place, is now much more open, and we can keep our eyes out for pirates.
“As a result, the ocean is becoming more transparent, and while Global Fishing Watch won’t be able to see all the illegal fishing activity that happens in the oceans, it will have an impact. And we’ll talk about how it’s part of a progression to eradicate IUU fishing and the change that data and prediction is bringing to all of us.”
Adam: “Our project is focused on transparency. We’re realizing that this crucial problem cannot be fixed without being able to see what’s going on.”
Curtis: “I highly recommend that you guys check out Global Fishing Watch.org—and when you sign up, what you’ll see is a map of the world with little glowing points in the water indicating where fishing is happening. They use machine learning to analyze patterns in ship movements, and they identify when a ship is displaying a fishing type behavior instead of a transit type of behavior, for example. Using that they can pinpoint on the map where they think ships are fishing, and they highlight that for you, and this is really the core of their product.”
Adam: “We really are about being a tool and being a service and letting other people use it as they see fit—of course we want it to advance the goal of reducing IUU fishing and bringing back abundance and sustainability to the oceans. We do and are acting as a record of behaviors, and we’re the only ones who are applying the fishing detection algorithms and making them broadly available to the public, so with our platform, you can see who’s doing what.”
“Most, if not all, fishing tracking data are done by a system called the vessel monitoring system.”
Curtis: “The vessel monitoring system is mainly used by fishing vessels and the fisheries or the governments that want to oversee them, and these parties pay to use the system and collect the data. It guarantees that the broadcasts of the data from ships are received and the buyer owns that data. Because it’s private and expensive, this isn’t really the best solution when you’re trying to watch fishing globally.
“So they had to turn to another data source known as the AIS, or Automatic Identification System. This system was originally instituted basically so that ships didn’t crash into each other out on the ocean. And each ship broadcasts its location at given time intervals, and this signal is received by other ships and stations on land, and eventually all of that data is put together. So, this data isn’t as reliable as the VMS because there is no guarantee that the signal will be received, but it’s public data and comes at a much lower cost, so the economics make it ideal for a global solution.
“The raw bits of data that AIS provides are a ship’s position, course, and speed.
“Global Fishing Watch takes these raw pieces of information and with specialized algorithms identifies and accentuates important events people need to be aware of, like fishing activity in illegal waters and other suspicious behavior. One algorithm that they’re building into the platform helps identify transshipment.”
Adam: “Transshipment is when a fishing vessel rendezvous with a refrigerated reefer vessel or cargo vessel and then offloads some of its catch, and in some cases, they’re doing it to avoid quotas, so they don’t have to land that fish in the same area, and they can go fish some more and bring it out, and it gets landed somewhere else by the reefer vessel. So in some cases, it’s a real problem. So what we’re doing is we’re training through machine learning the algorithm that we have to identify a rendezvous event, and then from there, more work would need to be done to understand whether it’s legal or illegal.
“If the movement pattern of the reefer vessel is such that it’s unique if you will when it’s in the process of rendezvousing or transshipping, then you can imagine that even if the fishing vessel doing it were to turn off its AIS, you might be able to detect it just from seeing the one vessel, reefer vessel. It’s possible certainly that they could turn off their AIS too, but it’s interesting that you might be able to detect it when you see both vessels or when only one or the other is visible.”
Curtis: “With the behaviors and watch zones they’ve available in their platform, they have been able to watch and see if regulations are being followed, and in some cases provide supporting data for prosecution of illegal activity.”
Adam: “There was a marine protected area, a very large one in the Central Pacific, an extremely important habitat for tuna fishing, and then in January of 2015, it became a no-take marine protected area. In June there was a vessel that went through and appeared to fish.”
“It was seen using VMS data by the Kiribati government and the FFA, and they ended up capturing the vessel and impounding it and trying to get a fine out of it, and at the same time, we were able to show we that we captured it as well, and that it certainly looked like it was apparently fishing, and so when they discussed with that ship operator that Global Fishing Watch, which wasn’t made available to the public at the time but is now, was going to be made available to the public, and it’s going to show it, it gave them extra leverage to get a fine and an additional contribution, which totaled over 1 percent of Kiribati’s GDP.”
Curtis: “So you might be wondering why people don’t just turn off their ship broadcaster, or tamper with it, to avoid being caught. Unless you’re a 100 percent pirate vessel, this may not go unnoticed to the Global Fishing Watch.”
Adam: “You can turn off your AIS. It’s easy to tamper with. You can even spoof it with fake information, but we get to see a lot of that. So if a vessel does not broadcast AIS at all, we don’t get to see a lot of it, but if you are a vessel that’s typically broadcasting AIS, and you turn it off in certain circumstances, or you put false information in, we can often see that. Somebody might show that they’re broadcasting a location that’s physically impossible to have gotten to in that period of time from the last location they were in or that they’re showing a location that’s outside of the satellite footprint that captured it and reported it or it’s on land, so it’s obviously a fake location.
“There was one particular example that was really interesting where there was a fleet of Chinese vessels that was all broadcasting a position that seemed to be offset by the same fixed amount of positioning and distance, and so what happened was one of our analysts was looking at it and realized that even though these vessels said they were in a certain area or part of the world, that actually that was all offset by the same fixed amount, and through that and other items, like recent port visits, he was able to see that it was actually in another part of the world, and he could actually show the track by fixing the offset.
“It was fascinating to be able to say okay, so these vessels, not only can we figure out in this case that they are spoofing this position, but we can also correct that due to multiple factors and say they’re very likely going through here in a whole different part of the world.”
Curtis: “It’s not all about the algorithms and machine learning. Like most useful data projects, there’s a strong element of human interpretation to the data. So, they’re building the ability within their tool to be able to do this, as well.”
Adam: “Most of it is probably going to be handled through a forum and a community because we don’t have the resources to vet everything either, so the best place to vet that stuff is through the community itself, so we haven’t done it yet, but we’ll probably add a forum fairly soon that would enable folks to say, ‘Hey, look, look at this track I found. I think it’s x, y, and z. Does anybody have any thoughts?’ And then someone might come in and say, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve looked at that too,’ or ‘let me take a look at it,’ and they’ll vet it, so by the time it gets through that forum, they’ll know whether that’s a real thing or not to then escalate.”
Ginette: “With this new ability to bring transparency to an historically obfuscated industry, we’re in a better position than ever before to protect our oceans and the fishers who work on them.”
Adam: “There’s a lot of seafood traceability efforts going on. There’s a lot of technology platforms, like Trace Register, that enable companies involved in seafood supply chain to have visibility into their supply chains. There’s a high demand for us to connect our data to theirs so that they could verify when a vessels says, ‘I caught this there and then.’
“And then also, similarly, if there’s risk factors, like maybe they transshipped, or maybe they spent a year out at sea—and that’s a risk factor for someone that might be involved in something like human trafficking or what recent ports did they visit or did they turn off their AIS seemingly intentionally? All those things can be integrated into those platforms and make that data even more powerful to the users, and so in a perfect world, this problem goes away when the powerful retailers have that kind of visibility, demand transparency, and then the ones that don’t make themselves visible by AIS or other means, have nowhere to sell their fish.”
Ginette: “So even if you are a pirate vessel flying completely under the radar, as more transparency comes to the industry and retailers demand this transparency, it’s going to be harder and harder for pirates to find buyers because there will be much more visibility in the supply chain. So as long as the large companies in charge demand this, it will be much harder for pirates to make a lucrative business. With the great data work that Global Fishing Watch is doing, they now have the opportunity to make this change happen.”
Ginette: “Global Fishing Watch is a data project that is already up and running, and you should absolutely go and have a look at it first chance you have because it’s mesmerizing. On our next episode, we’ll be exploring one of the biggest pirate busts in history, and we’ll introduce to you a new, fascinating data project coming out this spring by the World Wildlife Fund, and with their data project, they’re aiming be taking down pirates from another angle in the supply chain.
“Thank you to all of our interviewees for giving us part of their precious time. Also, check out our show notes on our website vaultanalytics.com/datacrunch. We have the transcript there, we have articles we’ve read, interesting data visualizations on the topic, youtube videos we watched, music we used, and the like. And we’d absolutely love to hear from you on our comments section.”
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