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Fisheries and Conflict Zones: The Critical Role of Satellite Technology

Fonseca_gulf_depleted fisheriesIn an Oxford University Press (OUP) blog yesterday, Dalal Al-Abdulrazzak highlights a recent study she conducted on “global fisheries catch data” which shows that the data relied on by international organizations like the FAO may be, well, “fishy.” In particular, she highlights a major discrepancy between reported catches and estimated actual annual catches in the Persian Gulf, as revealed via satellite imagery:

In our study, we use Google Earth satellite images to examine fish weirs, a type of trap that works with the changing tides. Using the Persian Gulf as a case study, we combine the estimated number of traps—which accounts for likely present, but unseen traps—with assumptions about their daily catch and fishing season length to estimate annual catches for the region that are up to six times more than what is officially reported by Gulf countries.

Al-Abdulrazzak continues with an interesting and important point about the utility of satellite technology, especially for collecting data in difficult-to-reach regions:

These results, which provide the first example of fisheries catch estimates from space, speak to the potential of satellite technologies for monitoring fisheries remotely, particularly in areas that were once considered too dangerous or expensive for fisheries surveillance and enforcement. For example, we were able to reveal and account for 17 illegal operating traps in Qatar, and suggest that similar methods can be used to expose other illegal marine practices such as monitoring activities in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and assessing the magnitude of oil spills.

This utility of satellite technology would also apply to zones of instability and conflict, where fisheries data (and other sorts of data, including water and climate information) are of critical importance for assessing vulnerability and instability, but are difficult-to-impossible to collect due to circumstances on the ground. For example, see NASA’s satellite data on freshwater losses in the Middle East (the Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region) – of critical importance in an unstable region where many ground-based data sources sources lay in zones inaccessible to researchers.

Satellites may also be crucial, for example, in tracking fisheries dynamics in the contested South China Sea, which because of a warming ocean, is seeing fish stocks gradually moving northwards. Accurate data and monitoring could be crucial in this area, as geopolitical tensions between China, its Asian neighbors, and the United States, over claims to the sea, could be non-trivially affected by such changes (see Will Rogers’ discussion of this in a CNAS report from 2012).

In short, satellite technologies are critical in a changing (and unstable) world. We should not allow the pressures of austerity to make us forget this.

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