The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has demonstrated its SeaFar ocean observation system at the African Aerospace and Defence expo in Centurion while also revealing new details about recent reports of illegal Chinese fishing vessels.
Media outlets claimed that anglers with smart phones and ship-tracking apps had found that the Chinese vessels had switched off their AIS (Automatic Information System) to allow them to fish illegally off the East Coast.
While illegal fishing did occur, Dr Waldo Kleynhans, Research Group Leader, Satellite Synthetic Aperture Radar Group at the CSIR, said there had been a lot of confusion over whether authorities had been tracking the Chinese ships or not.
“One of the reasons why it seemed like these vessels were just switching on and off their transponders was because the free and online tools to monitor these vessels don’t have enough coverage to cover our entire coastline. So it would appear for somebody sitting in front of their desktop that these vessels were actually switching on and off their transponders trying to evade detection, but in fact, the similar study monitoring these vessels from satellite (showed) these vessels kept their transponders on. You can’t hide from satellite.
“We were able to monitor these nine vessels; we gave the location to DAFF (Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) and they were able to intercept one of these vessels based directly on the information that we provided them.
Dr Kleynhans is the inventor of the SeaFar system, which he described as “A Maritime Domain Awareness System because it takes all sorts of maritime data, things like AIS data, which is a transponder on a vessel transmitting its location, things like the speed etc., continuously, other transponder data like VMS (Vessel Monitoring System) that DAFF uses, that data can also be ingested into the system and then, importantly, we make use of earth observation data, in particular, a product called Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR).
“One of the main products we have is a ‘dark target detection’ product. It takes the image from the satellite and it looks at all the transponder data, of vessels that are actively transponding their locations, and it matches the two up to identify vessels that are trying to be malicious and switch off their transponders and try to be rogue in the deep ocean area or vessels trying to spoof their data – trying to indicate that they are at a different location than they really are.”
SeaFar has been in development for some five years and has had successes like detecting “dark” fishing vessels and also so-called “bilge dumps”, when ships dump waste oil into the oceans, a highly illegal activity, have also been detected. A ship rounding the Cape en route to Iran dumped oil causing a slick which reached from Madagascar to Mozambique, the biggest recorded dump in the region.
Dr Kleynhans stressed the importance of ongoing pollution monitoring in South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and said: “We would like to see the system going especially regionally, collaborating with our regional partners to extend the capability in region waters around Southern Africa.”
He said he saw pollution monitoring, vessel detection as well as safety and security applications being the key targets for the CSIR’s eye-in-the-sky, SeaFar.
SeaFAR is an integral part of the Department of Environmental Affairs Oceans and Coasts Information Management System (OCIMS), part of the Phakisa oceans economy programme.
SeaFAR has been added to the Denel Integrated Systems and Maritime (DISM) arsenal. “The CSIR has developed pioneering technology to detect illegal vessels and DISM is now working to further develop the system and explore its export potential,” Denel acting chief executive Zwelakhe Ntshepe said.
“With many African countries heavily dependent on legal fishing and other marine activities, SeaFar brings a practical solution to the illegal activities.”
South Africa has an EEZ in excess of 1.5 million square kilometres with only a handful of vessels from DAFF, assisted by the SA Navy and SA Air Force, to ensure the country’s maritime resources are properly safeguarded.