Pelagic Data Systems
How one data tracking system is democratizing fishing practices on a global scale
Like many of our most successful stories, this one began thanks to a welcome introduction from a connection in the wider ocean tech community, Global Fishing Watch. When we first met Pelagic Data Systems’ CEO, Dave Solomon, in 2015, it seemed clear that his company was on a viable path to creating hardware-based solutions to solve some of the fisheries sector’s biggest data challenges. Though less than a year old, the company was building tools with the potential to profoundly impact the future of sustainable fisheries.
At first glance, PDS’s ultra-light Vessel Tracking System (VTS) device looks like nothing more than the average external hard drive. In reality, these roughly seven-by-three inch piece units hide circuitry that is fighting food insecurity, climate change, overfishing and illegal fishing, and human trafficking in fisheries. These systems are solar powered and completely automated with no external controls. They gather detailed information on a fishing boat’s movements and upload the data via cellular signals.
Fisheries are a primary source of animal protein for a billion people worldwide, but the harmful impacts of climate change and overfishing have given way to a litany of dangerous consequences that have, until technologies like VTS, been nearly impossible to track. Although traditional monitoring technology called Automatic Identification System(AIS) has long been required on larger fishing vessels, these less sophisticated devices are costly, and in many cases ineffective, because they can be manually turned off, leaving much fishing vessel activity in the shadows.
“Our technology allows managers and communities to receive more and better data about their seafood, increasing resilience for this essential value chain in the face of illegal activity and climate effects.”Dave Solomon, Chief Executive Officer, Pelagic Data Systems and Good Machine
PDS’ waterproof and highly-durable systems track vessel positions down to the second, storing years’ worth of data directly onboard in addition to uploading data in real time, or as soon as a vessel returns to cellular range. While traditional vessel monitoring systems track and report a vessel’s location once every hour, the PDS’ VTS reports once every few seconds. This brings a whole new level of transparency to fishing activities at sea, which have historically occurred untracked and out of sight. From a conservation standpoint, this data on how many boats are fishing and for how long makes it easier to track how many fish are being taken out of an ecosystem, providing actionable insight into fishing pressure in a more granular way. It illustrates the movement patterns of fishing vessels, allowing for stricter enforcement of marine-protected areas by revealing boats that are breaking the rules. This also rewards fishers who follow the rules by allowing them to prove their catches are caught legally and sustainably. The technology also provides additional value to fishers as well. Many small-scale fishers don’t have GPS systems, but the VTS allows them to track precise fishing locations so they can, for instance, identify and avoid areas where bycatch has been high. The systems improve safety by allowing those onshore to identify the location of vessels stuck offshore due to engine problems, a major threat in some areas.
Accessibility was also top of mind for the PDS team as they considered which design elements would make the system most successful for the marginalized communities it needed to support. By offering the VTS at an affordable price point with no user interface and no required technological experience for installation or maintenance, PDS is helping promote financial resilience, in addition to curbing overfishing and illegal fishing. Whatsmore, the seemingly low-tech device sidesteps user error in fisheries data collection, making the data collection and storage through PDS extremely accurate. This type of reliable and self-sustaining data-powered transparency quite literally brings long-hidden illegal activity into the light, forcing a level of accountability and collaborative progress to governments, nonprofits, and the industry at large.
“Traditional vessel tracking devices do not adequately serve the needs of the global majority of fishers who are operating on a small-scale, but Pelagic Data Systems devices do.”Jen Cole, Director, Climate and Oceans, Good Machine
After funding the development of a gear locator device in 2016, we were excited to increase funding in 2017 to support PDS’ community-oriented work in conservation and resource management in under-resourced communities. East Timor, for example, where the team has done extensive work, has faced numerous challenges. The government there was working on plans to improve their fisheries management to increase food supplies (50% of children under 5 there were suffering from malnutrition), to offer a viable alternative to dependence on offshore oil lease revenues, and to reduce the number of foreign vessels operating illegally in their waters. Pelagic’s work was a critical component in this overall effort. Outfitting local vessels with Pelagic systems has increased fisheries data to allow assessment of fish abundances in different areas and to devise the best plans possible for sustainable fishing.
Time and time again, community plays an invaluable role not only in connecting us with innovative ideas and grant opportunities, but also in the genesis and evolution of the ideas themselves. While work in East Timor was initially supported by Schmidt Marine, and Worldfish, as well as a National Geographic Society Marine Protection Prize. The monitoring is now fully supported by the East Timor government. This shift in ownership was enacted by design, based on the belief that with ownership comes increased investment, autonomy, and independence.
When technology is inspired by interconnectivity and community-building, its impact becomes that much more valuable. To date, there are over 1,000 PDS devices in use by fishers in over 40 countries, totaling over 500,000 cumulative trips, and in June of 2018, PDS won the National Geographic Society’s Marine Protection Prize.
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Tilley, A. et al. (2021) A randomised controlled trial to test the effects of fish aggregating devices and SBC activities promoting fish consumption in Timor-Leste: A study protocol, medRxiv. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. Available at: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.08.10.21261568v1.full (Accessed: April 12, 2023).