The fight to slow the global fish crash has a big problem

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As fish populations collapse, much of the seafood industry goes unmonitored, hampering conservation. A company is trying to solve this problem

Paul Tullis, Bloomberg

01 January 2022, 18:50

Last modification: January 01, 2022, 7:04 PM

The idea for NEMO, a device capable of tracking small fishing vessels, was born out of a fishery in Senegal. Above, today’s catch from a small boat in Dakar on October 18. Photographer: John Wessels / AFP / Getty Images / Bloomberg

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The idea for NEMO, a device capable of tracking small fishing vessels, was born out of a fishery in Senegal. Above, today’s catch from a small boat in Dakar on October 18. Photographer: John Wessels / AFP / Getty Images / Bloomberg

Biendi Maganga-Moussavou had a problem.

As Gabonese Minister of Fisheries, Agriculture and Food Security, he helps oversee the African country’s marine protected areas, which are among the largest in Africa. Covering 27% of Gabon’s exclusive economic zone, these waters are monitored using monitoring technology that tracks larger vessels, which are required to report their catches. But many Gabonese fishermen run smaller operations that lack such systems, or even automated identification.

“Thousands of boats were leaving and we didn’t know where they were going or for how long,” Magana-Moussavou said in an interview. And since everything they fished and where they fished was not recorded, scientists could not tell if fishing restrictions were being observed or if fish stocks in protected areas were increasing …or declining.

Gabon’s problem is the world’s problem. Over 30 million fishermen worldwide – around 90% of the total, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) –are considered small scale. Together they bring about half of the world’s catches. With the increase in human populations and the enrichment of developing countries, the demand for seafood is increasing. Accurate assessment of the declining global fish supply is therefore crucial for global food security. But for the moment, it is impossible.

“Millions of tonnes of fish from artisanal fisheries are ‘hidden’ in the sense that they are invisible and unreported,” warned the FAO in its 2020 World Fisheries Report.

But in order to fill this data hole, low-fi technology is being exploited. Gabon has partnered with the CLS group, a subsidiary of the French National Center for Space Studies, which uses hundreds of satellites to provide monitoring and surveillance services to governments and scientists. Together, they developed a solar-powered device the size of a loaf of bread called NEMO.

The device transmits its location via a cell tower or satellite, allowing small fishermen to record their catches. If widely adopted, such technology could go a long way in filling this critical picture of food under the waves. In doing so, it could reveal how much time humans have left to adopt more sustainable fishing practices.

Bangladesh is one of the many countries where the use of small transponders is in progress. Above, fishermen unload baskets in the city of Chandpur on September 7. Photographer: Habibur Rahman / Eyepix Group / Barcroft Media / Getty Images / Bloomberg

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Bangladesh is one of the many countries where the use of small transponders is in progress.  Above, fishermen unload baskets in the city of Chandpur on September 7.  Photographer: Habibur Rahman / Eyepix Group / Barcroft Media / Getty Images / Bloomberg

Bangladesh is one of the many countries where the use of small transponders is in progress. Above, fishermen unload baskets in the city of Chandpur on September 7. Photographer: Habibur Rahman / Eyepix Group / Barcroft Media / Getty Images / Bloomberg

CLS said it has installed nearly 3,000 NEMO devices on ships operating in the waters of 40 countries, including France, Greece, Peru, Ecuador, Cote d’Ivoire, Seychelles, Bangladesh and Australia. Gabon started using NEMO in July.

The program aims to eventually deploy up to 2 million devices worldwide, the company said. While each costs around $ 200, international NGOs including the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York and local groups are rallying to help pay for the devices, according to CLS.

“Any data would help fill a major gap in our collective knowledge,” said program director Michel Denjean. Even a sample of data from small-scale fishermen, or just knowing where a boat spends its time and for how long, can provide valuable guidance for conservation, he said.

But why would a subsistence fisherman participate? Already prohibited to work in certain waters and under the pressure of changing migratory patterns and low oxygen levels triggered by warming seas, it’s safe to assume that many wouldn’t be interested.

Safety, apparently, is the lure. NEMO can also activate a distress signal. When small boats lose sight of shore, either because they have to go further to find fish or simply because the weather changes, they can get lost. Engines can fail and not everyone wears a veil in an emergency. And if they are more than a few kilometers from the coast, cell phones will not pick up any signals.

“It’s not just control,” Maganga-Moussavou said. “It’s a way to protect the fishermen themselves.

One potential problem with the widespread adoption of satellite tracking devices is the suspicion that authorities will use them to punish stray fishermen. Above, boats line the seaside district of Guet N’Dar in Saint Louis, Senegal on August 12. Photographer: John Wessels / AFP / Getty Images / Bloomberg

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One potential problem with the widespread adoption of satellite tracking devices is the suspicion that authorities will use them to punish stray fishermen.  Above, boats line the seaside district of Guet N'Dar in Saint Louis, Senegal on August 12.  Photographer: John Wessels / AFP / Getty Images / Bloomberg

One potential problem with the widespread adoption of satellite tracking devices is the suspicion that authorities will use them to punish stray fishermen. Above, boats line the seaside district of Guet N’Dar in Saint Louis, Senegal on August 12. Photographer: John Wessels / AFP / Getty Images / Bloomberg

Fish consumption has been increasing almost twice as fast as population growth for more than more than half a century, exceeding even animal protein. Humans eat more than twice as much seafood as in 1960, with most of the increase occurring in the developing world. According to the FAO, less than two-thirds of fish stocks are now at biologically sustainable levels, up from 90% in 1974.

“One of the main challenges that fisheries face when assessing their ecological performance is the lack of data on, for example, the assessment of stocks, species and areas fished,” said Amanda Lejobowicz, responsible for fishing standards, accessibility, at the Marine Stewardship Council. . “This is especially true for small-scale fishermen and those in developing economies.”

Eric Terrill, director of the Coastal Observing Research and Development Center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, agreed. “The low cost transponder devices provide a great opportunity to follow the fishing pressure patterns of a representative sample of fishermen who are not normally managed,” he said.

The idea for NEMO originated in Senegal, where a local fishery told the company that rising ocean temperatures and competition from large Chinese trawlers were pushing small fishermen further offshore. “We have started to develop a satellite connection for monitoring but also for requesting assistance,” said Hervé Galabert, Director of Sustainable Fisheries Management at CLS. “They wanted something sturdy, solid, simple and affordable.”

NEMO transmits to a constellation of seven nanosatellites already in use for animal tracking and climate research, the company said. From 2023, it will switch to a new group of 25 satellites developed by the subsidiary of CLS Kinéis, with the space startup RocketLab contracted for the launch.

Hervé Galabert, Director of Sustainable Fisheries Management at the CLS Group, explaining the monitoring information for the company’s NEMO system Source: CLS Group

Hervé Galabert, Director of Sustainable Fisheries Management at the CLS Group, explaining the monitoring information for the company’s NEMO system Source: CLS Group


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