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

(Bloomberg) — Biendi Maganga-Moussavou had a problem.

As Gabon’s 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 surveillance technology that tracks the largest 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 going out and we didn’t know where they were going or for how long,” Magana-Moussavou said in an interview. And since everything they caught and where they caught it was not recorded, scientists could not tell whether fishing restrictions were being enforced or whether fish stocks in protected areas were rising or falling. Gabon’s problem is the world’s problem. More than 30 million fishers worldwide – about 90% of the total, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – are considered small-scale fishers. Together, they bring in around half of the world’s catch. With the increase in human population and the wealth of developing countries, the demand for seafood is increasing. Accurate assessment of the dwindling global fish supply is therefore crucial for global food security. But for now, it’s impossible.

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

But in a bid to fill this data hole, some low-fi technologies are being leveraged. 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 relays its position via a cell tower or satellite, allowing small-scale fishermen to log their catch. If widely adopted, such technology could go a long way in bridging that critical food picture beneath the waves. In doing so, it could reveal how much time is left for humans to adopt more sustainable fishing practices.

CLS said it has installed nearly 3,000 NEMO devices on vessels operating in the waters of 40 countries, including France, Greece, Peru, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Seychelles, Bangladesh and India. 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 stepping up 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 simply 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 banned from working in some waters and under the pressure of changing migration patterns and falling oxygen levels triggered by warming seas, it is reasonable to assume that many would not be interested.

Security, apparently, is the decoy. NEMO can also activate a distress signal. When small boats lose sight of the shore, either because they have to go farther to find fish or simply because the weather changes, they can get lost. Engines can fail and not everyone wears a sail in an emergency. And if they’re more than a few miles offshore, cell phones won’t pick up a signal.

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

Fish consumption has increased at nearly double the rate of population growth for more than half a century, even outpacing animal protein. Humans are eating more than twice as much seafood as they did in 1960, with most of the increase occurring in developing countries. According to the FAO, less than two-thirds of fish stocks are now at biologically sustainable levels, down 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, stock assessment, species and areas fished,” said Amanda Lejobowicz, responsible for fishing standards, accessibility, at the Marine Stewardship Council. . “This is especially true for small-scale fishers and those in developing economies.”

Eric Terrill, director of the Coastal Observing Research and Development Center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, agrees. “Low-cost transponder devices offer an excellent opportunity to track fishing pressure patterns from 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 heavy Chinese trawlers were pushing small-scale fishers further out to sea. develop a satellite connection for tracking but also for requesting assistance,” explains 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 used for animal tracking and climate research, the company said. From 2023, it will transition to a new group of 25 satellites developed by CLS subsidiary Kinéis, with space startup RocketLab under contract for the launch.

Even with the promise of additional security, buy-in from small-scale fishermen remains a problem. With fishermen allowed to operate in Gabon’s protected area for only a few hours a day, Maganga-Moussavou concedes that NEMO makes it easier to catch those who stay too long. “We can monitor their activity and see what they’re doing and fine them if they’re doing it wrong,” he said. But he added that fishermen can cite NEMO data to prove their innocence if they are accused of illegal fishing.

“The safety of fishermen is a big concern at sea and on Africa’s great lakes,” said Sandy Davies, technical expert with the Stop Illegal Fishing Secretariat, a southern African NGO. “NEMO may well spark interest as storms intensify and anglers move further from shore.”

The market could provide an additional incentive. Fish with an eco-label like the MSC brings in more money. Although many small-scale fishers are only connected to local markets, interest in sustainably caught fish is growing everywhere, especially where there is a strong tourist presence, such as Greece, the Maldives and the United States. ‘Ecuador.

And while the use of such devices is still voluntary, it could soon become mandatory. New legislation in Gabon will soon require the installation of a NEMO to obtain a commercial fishing license.

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