DETECT: IT Fish: Using Tech to take the Fight to IUU fishing

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is one of the most serious threats to ocean sustainability. It decimates vulnerable stocks, robs nations of their marine resources, undermines fisheries management, unbalances markets, jeopardises food security and fuels crime. By definition, no one knows how much IUU activity is taking place around the world – but some estimate that it accounts for as much as 30% of total catches. Combating IUU fishing is an international priority.

In the past, governments have been slow to meet the challenge. Methods of monitoring, surveillance and enforcement in fisheries and supply chains have proved inadequate, and new solutions are needed – but now, that’s what technology is offering.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s commitment at Our Ocean 2016 was to develop a new tool that would use big data to shed light on IUU activity in world seafood markets – and it has fulfilled that commitment.

DETECT: IT Fish is a free web-based tool which compares and analyses UN trade data from more than 170 countries on the movement of fish from country to country. The tool enables users to visualise the data in a variety of ways, highlighting major discrepancies in trade data as a red flag and a starting point for researchers, policymakers and fishery officials to investigate further.

Since its public launch in November 2017, DETECT: IT Fish has contributed in the fight against IUU fishing for WWF and its NGO wildlife trade partner TRAFFIC, providing valuable new information to use in their advocacy efforts with policymakers around the world.

“It has been integral to our work in Japan,” says Michele Kuruc, WWF’s Vice President of Ocean Policy. “As part of a coalition of organisations we’ve used it to provide evidence of possible illegal trade of bluefin tuna and generate a better understanding of what the trade data is showing. It has also been central to discussions with Pakistani fishery officials regarding shark fin trading.”

WWF has also used DETECT:IT Fish to train fisheries investigators across southern Africa, including in Mozambique, Madagascar and Tanzania. The tool is helping shape trade and anti-trafficking policy, while strengthening enforcement efforts and enabling further research: the more we know about IUU fishing, the more we can do to stop it.

It all comes down to data. There’s no shortage of information out there – on vessels, on markets, on trade flows – but what do you do with all that information once you’ve got hold of it? Advances in data analysis have opened up whole new possibilities – and that’s where DETECT:IT Fish comes in.

“The seeds of this tool were sown by the experiences of a colleague in South Africa,” says Kuruc. “He was working with enforcement agencies and looking at trade data to identify where products were going, and he realised that it was an under-utilised resource for learning about illegal fishing. But the sheer amount of data meant that it took weeks to compare data across two countries – plus the information had to be accessed on a disc!”
Conservation experience alone wouldn’t be enough to build on the potential that Kuruc’s colleague had identified, so WWF started talking with partners in the tech sector at Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE).

“One of HPE’s reps – who happened to be a keen recreational fisherman – told us about a contest that they were hosting, to show how big data can improve the lives of up to a million people,” explains Kuruc. The contest was the 2016 Living Progress Challenge, and attracted 360 ideas and 130 detailed proposals from around the world. “Given the 4.3 million fishery trade records available and potential for what the data could show, as well as the challenge of accessing and comparing records, automating the time-consuming data analysis to allow for greater use to identify suspicious trade flows seemed like a perfect fit for the contest.”
The initial proposal was chosen to progress to a design phase, where WWF worked with developers and data scientists at HPE to create a bare-bones prototype. After further rounds of elimination, WWF was named one of the four winners and given the opportunity to develop the prototype into a full product.

For Kuruc, it was a proud moment: “We were absolutely delighted. And it really was a full team effort, from WWF’s IT department who helped us with our technical literacy to the HPE team who learnt a lot about fish in a short space of time and had great ideas for features to deliver the queries.”

DETECT:IT Fish shows how a diverse range of experiences and perspectives can lead to true innovation to save the ocean – and Kuruc believes this is something that Our Ocean will continue to foster.

“One of the most valuable things about Our Ocean is its core idea of bringing some of these initiatives beyond just the ocean sector. These issues cannot be addressed by only speaking to those who are already committed. We all need to play a part in tackling this challenge which is affecting our planet.”

Photo Credit: World Wildlife Fund /