Inside the Oceans Monitoring Centre, behind a door locked by secret code and a wall of warnings about the confidential nature of what happens here, are eight big-screen monitors.
They stretch across nearly a full wall, stitching together a map of the Pacific Ocean. Between them swim thousands of triangles and teardrops.
It looks like a video game superimposed onto Google Earth. It’s actually a system that monitors, in near-real time, the most fished ocean in the world.
The triangles are boats tracked by AIS, an automatic identification system capturing pretty much all oceangoing vessels carrying safety transponders. The teardrops are commercial fishing vessels; their data and positions are accessible only through this system, the vessel-monitoring system, and only to people in national governments and international agencies tasked with monitoring fishing. The figures are trailed by lines, their electronic footprints.
The system is central to the work done in the Oceans Monitoring Centre, home to the Offshore Division of the Ministry of Marine Resources – the agency responsible for making sure foreign fishing companies aren’t taking more fish than they’re allowed and boats registered in the Cook Islands, from trawlers in the Southern Indian Ocean to a lobster potting vessel in the eastern Pacific, aren’t either.
“There’s no boring day in Offshore,” says senior fisheries officer Andrew Jones. “We’re monitoring boats all over the planet.”
Names of the teardrops have been removed in anticipation of my visit.
“For security,” explains Sai Sarau, a compliance officer in an orange high-vis vest and a wide smile who sometimes goes to sea with fishing vessels, but today has been assigned the task of showing me around.
Sarau clicks on a red teardrop moving across the northern Pacific, a blip in an organised bedlam of figures: blue for patrol vessels, green for boats with no infractions, red for vessels with high risk of non-compliance.
A box appears, offering the ship’s details – name, flag state, type, call sign, location, speed, direction – and its alleged transgression: transferring fish to another boat before heading into port, where fisheries officers await to verify catch data.
Jones got an early morning call once, from an acquaintance in Pago Pago.
“Our boat didn’t report last night,” the caller said.
The VMS confirmed that the vessel’s trail ended at 9 o’clock the previous night. Jones located two vessels nearby its last recorded location. He contacted their captains.
Those vessels soon discovered the tip of a boat peeking out of the water and 12 people treading; their life rafts and flares had drifted away.
“The VMS saved those guys’ lives,” Jones recalls.
More often than it saves lives, the VMS assists in patrols, or operations, as fisheries officers call them.
These are the unannounced surveillance missions launched by Te Kukupa and other ships and planes sent by New Zealand, Australia, France, and the United States.
Regional operations occur about five times a year; national patrols about three, or as needed.
During an operation, the Oceans Monitoring Centre is staffed 24 hours a day. Officers work in four-hour shifts through days, nights, and weekends, directing patrol vessels via text and email to suspicious fishing boats.
“When a patrol boat’s out, we’re its eyes,” Jones says. “Without us, they’re out there blind.”
Sometimes, operations last a month.
Auora Mataora, who works as a data analyst in the Offshore division, travels with Te Kukupa during operations, giving police the power to board and inspect vessels beyond territorial waters, or 12 nautical miles from shore. Out there, in the middle of the sea, fisheries officers are the law.
Fisheries officers also function as human surveillance cameras, or observers as they’re called in the field. Sometimes they go to sea for weeks to monitor what a vessel is catching. Their job is to take notes and record video footage. Often, they don’t speak the languages spoken on board.
Next door to the Oceans Monitoring Centre, in a narrow room, fisheries officers sit at computers, entering data into the cloud.
The Offshore team begins collecting data as soon as a fishing company applies for a licence to fish in the Cook Islands, beginning with due diligence, or analysis of a company’s track record.
If decision-makers decide to license a fishing vessel, the Offshore team then gathers data about its activity. This is used to prosecute illegal behaviour, and also to broaden the scientific body of knowledge that informs regional standards for fisheries monitoring.
The data comes from log sheets, observers’ reports and footage, and biological samples taken when fisheries officers inspect vessels at port.
“We cross-check what’s entered in their log sheet with what we watch them unload,” data analyst Chloe Wragg explains.
Sometimes, she and her team travel to distant ports, in places like Peru and South Africa, to monitor unloading. Mostly, they’re keeping tabs on boats that dock in the Cook Islands. They measure and weigh fish that comes off local boats as often as twice a week; this is known as port sampling.
“Every single fish on the long-liner is accounted for,” explains Marino Wichman, who manages the data team. “For purse seiners it’s more challenging, but we have methods we use to arrive at pretty good estimates and we can get it down to pretty accurate weights.”
To verify catch data from boats that don’t unload at Rarotonga’s port, the team can use other data sources, such as independent observers’ reports, port sampling information collected by other countries, and emerging technologies like electronic monitoring.
“Electronic monitoring has the potential to add an extra layer of monitoring with cameras capturing all activity on the vessel,” says data analyst Ruiruia David. “This includes helping our observers with catch verifications and species identification as well adding a security layer for the observer and crew.”
The challenges of fisheries management remain; managing a shared resource in a vast ocean area requires innovation and collaboration and patrol missions cost a lot of money. But as technology advances, science and monitoring becomes increasingly precise and increasingly practical.
The Ministry of Marine Resources and the Pacific Community are now developing apps that will allow for faster and more direct capturing of data, which will give fisheries officers more time to analyse and use information.
“Electronic reporting will be a game changer for the data team,” Wichman says. “Now it will be about stepping back and being more analytical and scrutinising the data, asking questions like: What is the data telling us? What trends can we find in it?”
If a boat is breaking the rules – fishing in a closed area, for example, or taking more than its allocated quota – the Offshore team can prove it with data.
When a fishing company breaches the terms of its licence, fisheries officers provide Crown Law with information that’s been collected about its boats. Sometimes, this is used to prosecute.
“Catching illegal boats is my favourite part,” Jones says, of a job he’s been doing for 18 years. “It’s very rewarding when we succeed – and we do succeed.”
In 2018, the Ministry of Marine Resources earned $2.4 million in an out-of-court settlement.
Data about fish – weights, length, sex, catch location, and other measurements about fishing activity – allow the Offshore team to monitor whether fishing boats are following the rules. They also inform annual reports about the status of fish stocks in the region.
Fisheries managers across the Pacific share the data they collect with the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and Pacific Community, regional bodies that make decisions about sustainable limits, or how much fishing should be allowed in the western and central Pacific Ocean.
Collecting data is often painstaking, but in Offshore, Jones says, there are no boring days. In a given week, members of the team might monitor the vessel monitoring system, inspect a ship’s hold, measure fish at the harbour, or board a ship suspected of violating the terms of its licence.
“This,” Jones says, “is definitely not a boring job.”
This story was funded and approved by the Ministry of Marine Resources.