Recycled News/Whining: Illegal Fishing is Hampered by Data Gaps

Quartz reporting on an often ignored, but tragic issue in the world’s oceans. The story is based on a report by the UK Overseas Development Institute, an independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues. The report, Fishing for data, should be lauded for surveying the landscape of actors combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It also (inadvertently?) highlights a few critical flaws in the current strategy to rein in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Your author is no expert in fishing, illegal or otherwise. But he does have a background in data and has written about this topic as a case study in deriving signal, something quant researchers at a large handful of hedge funds are exceedingly good at doing. Because financial services tend to have so much (capital) on the line, portfolio managers have no gumption about staring you down when asking you about confidence. Other areas of the economy attract equally capable talent, but trading on other people’s money does wonders for boosting statistical and overall confidence–it can force creativity and resourcefulness in ways that seem far from obvious. Now if only some of that could be applied to areas outside of financial services.

After reading and thinking on this topic, I’m left with a distinct feeling that efforts to combat IUU suffer from a lack of imagination. The bad actors are there. The technology, funding and expertise exist. But the solution is in pieces, culturally and organizationally. There are multiple not for profit (and oddly, several for profit) initiatives to address the problem through the use of data. Paul Allen’s Vulcan SkyLight initiative isn’t mentioned in the ODI report and is an exceedingly tech-focused. One can hope for exchanges of technical capabilities for domain understanding. As the report notes, the for-profit status of several organizations runs counter the spirit of collaboration as data licensing and broad dissemination are not in the interest of all.

While not completely analogous, the Hao Fan 6 is one of several cargo ships that has allegedly been doing bidding for North Korea, shipping illegal cargo to skirt UN sanctions. It’s a fascinating read and it outlines the domain-specific knowledge that helped track down the ship, its owners and related information. Ships must eventually refuel and restock.

Given the geographic scope and economic scale of illegal fishing, using AIS and imagery alone would be shortsighted. Interdiction costs are high and efforts are limited. The web of ownership structures, shipping manifests, registry data and a lot more all help increase confidence so that when analysis yields suspicion, there is an exceedingly strong likelihood that the findings are more than circumstantial.

Eventually, the fear of the proverbial portfolio manager will filter into other industries, and this is a good thing. Until then, information asymmetry will persist, benefiting those who already benefit.


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