Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) will soon be able to find boats in waters anywhere in the world with pinpoint accuracy, thanks to a new satellite system in orbit since June.
The technology will help fight the growing worldwide problem of illegal fishing.
“We’re talking about areas that are potentially hundreds of miles away from land,” said Sean Wheeler, a senior program officer for DFO’s international conservation and protection program.
“These are areas that are vulnerable to exploitation because there’s a lack of traditional resources like patrol vessels and airplanes, so that’s where technology needs to come into play, to support our ability to detect and respond to illegal fishing.”
If the satellites spot something suspicious on the water, DFO can use that information and other data to decide if they need to send out patrols.
It could also save the department money since they wouldn’t have to send out boats or planes to patrol areas where there aren’t any vessels.
The information from the satellites will also be shared with other countries to help them cut down on illegal fishing in their waters, which is especially important in small or developing nations that don’t have a lot of resources to fight illegal fishing, said Wheeler.
“Our oceans are all connected, and illegal fishing and the impacts it can have in one area of the Pacific or the Atlantic could affect our own stocks, so there is a Canadian element here to protect our own stocks,” he said.
Illegal fishing is a blanket term covering a wide range of illegal activities, including overfishing, disregarding conservation regulations, fishing in restricted areas, underreporting a catch and fishing out of season.
Worldwide, illegal fishing hurts conservation efforts and sucks money from the global economy.
Wheeler said the value is pegged at $10 billion to $26 billion US worldwide, while the estimated quantity is 26 million tonnes of fish.
Canada has been monitoring oceans from space for years, but the satellites used in the past had a hard time tracking the movement of vessels.
The new government-owned, $1.2-billion RADARSAT Constellation system will change that — it’s made up of three identical satellites that will pass over the Earth more frequently, providing a more accurate picture of what’s happening on the water, said Wheeler.
The Canadian Space Agency operates the satellites and helps disseminate the information collected.
The satellites have the capacity to view over 90 per cent of the Earth’s surface every 24 hours, excluding the South Pole, according to the space agency’s website.
The website also says the satellites are equipped with an automated identification system for ships that can be used by itself or along with radar to improve the detection and tracking of vessels.
But detecting boats and ships is just one of the many uses for the new constellation system. It will also be used for ecosystem monitoring, climate change monitoring, agriculture and aid in disaster relief efforts.
The three satellites were launched June 12 and have already started to send back data to the Canadian Space Agency. Wheeler said the agency is still running tests on the system, and expects the DFO will start receiving data from the satellites in the fall.
“This puts Canada in a position of being able to support partners around the world with the challenge of illegal fishing, and I think that’s quite a critical mission for our department and for Canada,” said Wheeler.