Technology developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was integral to identifying and locating foreign trawlers fishing illegally in South Africa’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) last month.
The EEZ is more than one and a half million square kilometres of ocean home to a diverse and rich marine ecology, the Pretoria-headquartered national research organisation said. This makes it an easy target for illegal fishing because of the difficulty of effectively patrolling such a huge expanse of ocean. Illegal fishing vessels are able to hide in the deep ocean and remain undetected for months while stealing thousands of tons of fish, rightfully belonging to South Africa.
“Under a month ago a large fishing vessel was detected in the South African EEZ using CSIR developed technology,” said Dr Waldo Kleynhans, the man who invented what is now called SeaFAR.
“It utilises synthetic aperture radars, optical satellites and satellite automatic identification systems coupled with ‘clever algorithms’ to detect and identify vessels exhibiting suspicious behaviour.
“Notwithstanding the vessel’s inactive transponder, SeaFAR was able to detect it. A satellite overpass was tasked from the SeaFAR system to obtain imagery (a synthetic aperture radar scene). It continued to monitor the EEZ and detected the same vessel with its transponders off.
“We are carefully monitoring the movements of this vessel and other foreign flagged fishing vessels. We were able to match their Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracks and by using prediction algorithms were able to anticipate where they might be when the AIS is turned off,” he said.
“And once we did all this, we were able to detect and locate the vessel using the synthetic aperture radar imagery which does not rely on transponder messages.”
Lee Annamalai, competence area manager where SeaFAR is being developed, said: “We were able to monitor the EEZ in this manner and if they transit into South African territory again we will be onto them”.
He is also contract manager for the development of the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Oceans And Coasts Information Management System (OCIMS). The system is a component of the Phakisa Ocean Economy programme and SeaFAR is one of the prioritised decision support tools for OCIMS.
Annamalai said the export potential of SeaFAR was already being explored.
“There is interest from several African coastal nations who are also combatting illegal fishing in their EEZs,” he said.
Late last month a combined SA Navy/Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) task force escorted three foreign fishing vessels into East London harbour days after another foreign trawler was escorted into Cape Town harbour by another DAFF patrol vessel.
Inspection and searches of the vessels in East London by a multi-agency team brought to light more than 600 tons of illegally caught squid and other species of fish.
Indications, not confirmed by either DAFF or SANDF Joint Operations at this stage, are that more similar operations will be mounted to keep foreign fishing vessels from plundering South African maritime resources.