Ocean Sentinels: Can Albatrosses help us fight illegal and undeclared fishing?

In the present era, the impact and threats to nature and biodiversity of human origin is constantly increasing. (The 2020 report released by WWF points to a 68% loss of biodiversity over the past 50 years).

In the oceans, both monitoring and the application of conservation measures to deter these impacts can be quite complex and sometimes inadequate. Particularly in international and remote waters, mainly due to political and logistical reasons. In turn, fisheries occur worldwide, both in exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and in international waters. It is an activity with a profound impact on marine ecosystems, due to overexploitation of fish stocks, removal of key species from the habitat and the accidental capture of marine vertebrates (e.g. whales, turtles, seabirds). Thus, the improvement in the management of fisheries and marine resources are extremely necessary. In addition, one of the biggest problems facing marine conservation are illegal and undeclared fisheries, especially in international waters. That is, the lack of knowledge and information about the fishing vessel that are operating, as well as the amount and species that are being targeted / affected.

Therefore, a research group, with the aim of increasing the surveillance and detection of illegal and unreported fisheries in a vast area of the southern ocean, has implemented a small technological device “logger”, on the back of 169 individuals of two seabird species –Wandering Albatross and Amsterdam Albatross – from November 2018 to March 2019. In order to detect the numerous fishing vessels, present in the EEZs and in international waters.


1 – Albatrosses are species that cover huge areas of the ocean surface (millions km2) and are highly attracted by fishing vessels, being able to detect them 30 km away.

2 – Fishing vessels should always use the Automatic Identification System (AIS) in order to be monitored. However, in illegal fishing, this system is often turned off. Yet, all fishing vessels emit radar signals.

3 – These signals are then detected by the loggers implemented in the albatrosses and provide information in real time on the fishing vessel, including the position, and whether the AIS is functioning correctly or not.

Fig. 1 – Schematization of OS concept: detection by Centurion loggers fitted on foraging albatross, immediate transmission by Argos system, analysis of data, provision of data on the TAAF/OS website, comparison with VMS and AIS data, and alert in case of detection of undeclared activity, with potential control by Navy ship.

Of this entire process, the 169 albatrosses in the study transmitted more than 5000 radar detections. As a result, within the French EEZs, as the Kerguelen and Crozet archipelagos, no cases of undeclared fishing vessels were found. However, in the EEZ of Amsterdam Island, 2 cases were detected, and in the Prince Edward Islands, all radar detections showed that none of these vessels had AIS in operation. In other hand, at international waters, at least half of the radar detections had no associated AIS. Moreover, mostly were in subtropical waters, where large Asian vessels operate on tuna fisheries. Many of them had irregular transmissions and incomplete vessel identification information.

This study has shown that albatrosses, as well as other seabirds and species in the future, may in fact function as sentinels of the oceans, and help improve our ability to monitor areas that are of difficult access, from the detection to the potential action of Navy ships (Fig. 1). Plus, albatrosses allowed detecting vessels with malfunction in mandatory identification systems, as well as the interaction between albatrosses and fishing vessels. In this way, providing a double benefit for both the conservation of species and the fight against illegal fisheries.

Currently, the transmission of knowledge to practical and implementation of conservation measures and policies is not always simple and immediate. Thus, this step is an extremely positive step, of the many still necessary, for a better and more effective conservation of marine habitats and resources.


Source: Weimerskirch, Henri, et al. Ocean sentinel albatrosses locate illegal vessels and provide the first estimate of the extent of nondeclared fishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117.6 3006-3014, 2020. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1915499117

Author: José Abreu


Leave a Reply