Microsoft’s co-founder wants to give powerful new surveillance tools to countries that have thousands of miles of coastline to patrol and few resources to do so.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, concerned about illegal fishing depleting global fish populations, will spend $40 million to develop a system that uses satellite imagery and data-analysis software to help countries spot and catch unlicensed fishing boats.
Called SkyLight, the system is being tested in the Pacific Island of Palau and the African nation of Gabon. Allen is trying to use technology to aid enforcement, particularly in countries with thousands of miles of coastline to patrol and few resources to do so. Allen will officially announce the initiative at the Our Oceans Conference in Malta on Friday.
Illegal fishing accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s catch, costing up to $23.5 billion a year, according to the World Wildlife Foundation, and placing additional stress on a wild fish population that has declined by about half since 1970. Overfishing raises the risk of conflict among fishing nations and raises the risk of hunger and joblessness in an industry that provides employment for more than 1 in 10 of the world’s people. Allen, an avid diver, has backed other ocean health projects and is also active in conservation efforts like trying to save the African elephant population by using drones and sensors to track their movements.
“The stakes are high and the threat is real,” said Dave Stewart, general counsel and head of government affairs for Allen’s Vulcan Inc. “Very few countries have access to timely, actionable intelligence and technology to address this issue. We are developing an illegal fishing intelligence network that will bring this to them.”
About 90 percent of the world’s fishing grounds are being harvested at or beyond sustainable limits. Some species, such as the southern bluefin tuna, are threatened with extinction. Shrinking supplies off the central and western coast of Africa have raised concerns about future food shortages there. In the Mediterranean and Black seas, catches have fallen by a third since 2007.
SkyLight, which will be broadly available in the first half of next year, takes multiple data sources from satellite images, to shipping records to information manually collected by officials standing on docks, and uses machine learning software to track and predict which vessels might be operating illegally. Over time, Vulcan is building its own database of all the boats it tracks. That allows countries to better focus limited resources. Some of the countries impacted have “one enforcement boat that goes out once a month if they have gas money,” he said.
Along with the tracking network, countries will also get access to Vulcan’s in-house scientists and business analysts, who will help advise them on how to make the best decisions about fishery management, the number of fishing licenses issued and appropriate penalties for illegal fishing.
The service is cloud-based and will enable different countries to communicate and share information as boats move from one country’s waters to the next, a challenge currently. Allen’s donation will cover the cost of setting up the service and starting with the initial countries. Vulcan is charging participating countries for using SkyLight but plans to use the funds to expand and sustain the program rather than as a money maker, Stewart said.