Spy Albatrosses Fitted with High-Tech Radar Sensors Are Searching the Ocean for Illegal Fishing Boats

Albatrosses fitted with high-tech tracking sensors are helping identify fishing boats possibly operating illegally in the southern Indian Ocean, scientists say.

The seabirds were put to work patrolling the seas as part of a six-month study that was successful in detecting fishing boats with their Automatic Identification System (AIS) switched off, suggesting that they were potentially attempting to stop their activities from being monitored.

The study took place between December 2018 and June 2019 and was led by Henri Weimerskirch of the French National Center for Scientific Research.

The "Ocean Sentinel" project found that over 25 percent of the 353 fishing boats recorded in exclusive economic zones (EEZs), where fishing has to be declared, lacked an active AIS, New Scientist reported.

Albatrosses were deemed perfect for the job as they are naturally attracted to fishing vessels.

Small loggers with GPS and radar detectors were attached to almost 170 albatrosses for the duration of the research. Data from the birds suggested the number of boats with AIS turned off in international waters shot up to over 35 percent.

"Even if illegal vessels are not using their AIS, they do need a radar to navigate," researchers said in a release. "When an albatross approaches a boat, its logger detects the radar signal emitted and indicates its position directly to the scientists. If it does not correspond to the position of a vessel identified by AIS, in national waters the boat may be involved in illegal activity."

Findings were published January 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Marine ecologist Boris Worm, a professor at Dalhousie University, told Science magazine that the academics were able to transform albatrosses into "animal cops." He said: "You're empowering animals to survey their own environment for conservation purposes. That's pretty cool."

It's not illegal to fish international waters, but it has to be declared. The researchers suggested AIS may be turned off to reduce competition or when vessels are taking illegally.

"Given that these activities dramatically impact oceanic ecosystems, through overexploitation of fish stocks and bycatch of threatened species, innovative ways to monitor the oceans are urgently required," the paper said. "This study shows the development of technologies offers the potential of implementing conservation policies by using wide-ranging seabirds to patrol oceans."

Weimerskirch told Science the research provides a viable addition to satellite monitoring. The team said their tech could be adapted for other species, including sharks and sea turtles.

According to the academics, the study produced "unpreceded information" on how seabirds are attracted to fishing boats, noting juveniles had a lower attraction to vessels than adults.

The paper noted: "This study shows that the development of technologies offers the potential of implementing conservation policies by using wide-ranging seabirds to patrol oceans."

File photo: Albatross
File photo: Albatross. The birds, fitted with high-tech tracking sensors, are now helping to identify fishing vessels operating illegally in the southern Indian Ocean, scientists say. iStock