Spies With Feathers

Sept. 18, 2018

Among the many surface water concerns that stormwater managers need to be aware of, particularly in coastal areas, is the health of fisheries. Temperature, water quality, debris, erosion, ocean acidification—all of these affect them, and all can be connected back, in some way, to stormwater management.

One thing a bit outside our purview is the conduct of the fishing crews themselves—who’s taking what, and whether they’re authorized to do so. As this article explains, up to a fifth of the seafood caught in the oceans worldwide is taken illegally, with many of the unregistered or unlicensed boats ignoring regulations aimed at protecting water quality and marine life, and nearly a third of the world’s fisheries are in danger of collapsing because of overfishing and other problems.

It has been almost impossible, though, for authorities to effectively police international waters. There are millions of fishing boats out there and only so many coast guard and naval ships to observe them. Satellite surveillance has been used to monitor illegal fishing, with mixed success; ships that don’t want to be detected can shut down their signaling systems. For a while, NOAA required legitimate fishing vessels to have a human observer onboard to monitor their activities, but that proved to be prohibitively expensive.

Now ecologists are drafting new workers to help in the effort: birds. They’re attaching GPS data loggers “about the shape and size of a Snickers” to the legs of large birds such as the albatross, which has a 10-foot wingspan. The birds tend to cluster around fishing boats, and the loggers send real-time data—GPS coordinates and the ship’s radar signal—back to a base; naval ships in the area can then be sent to check out suspicious activity.

Drones are also being used to monitor fishing vessels, but seeing a drone hovering near a boat—with no idea whose it is or why it’s there—has alarmed some fishermen.

In November, a French ecologist will attach GPS loggers to the legs of 80 birds in the Indian Ocean for a large-scale test of the concept. Nine countries have fishing rights in the region, and illegal fishing for Chilean sea bass and other species is an ongoing problem.

Drones, of course, are now routinely used for site inspections and can be sent to detect problems like illegal discharges or sediment plumes. Cameras are getting smaller all the time; can you think of other situations in which specially equipped birds might help detect problems?

Western Water Summit Call for Speakers Is Open
The Western Water Summit will take place February 6–7, 2019, in San Diego, CA. It focuses on all facets of water management: groundwater, surface water, wastewater, drinking water, irrigation, water law, reuse, generation, restoration, conservation and efficiency, and erosion and sedimentation. The Call for Speakers is open until November 1. Find more information about the conference tracks and registration at www.westernwatersummit.com.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.