Maritime Domain Awareness – How technology is improving compliance and enforcement of MPAs

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By Mimi D’Iorio, PhD, NOAA National MPA Center (on detail to NOAA Coastal Services Center) mimi.diorio [at]

There aren’t sign posts in the ocean, no billboards or ranger-staffed kiosks alerting ocean-goers that they are entering a special area where certain activities are regulated or prohibited.   Unlike on land, special areas in the ocean are not marked or gated or fenced.  So without posted boundaries, public compliance to MPA regulations relies on effective outreach and education, as well routine monitoring and enforcement.

No signs like this in the ocean!

But agencies tasked with surveillance and enforcement of MPA boundaries face logistical and economic challenges of monitoring large expanses of ocean with limited staff, small fleets and diminishing budgets.  And with some offenders engaging in illegal activities at night or far from port, the need to have enforcement “boots on deck” to issue a citation is often not always a feasible option.  This enforcement gap can contribute to MPAs seeming to be “paper parks”.  But new and emerging technologies in remote sensing and robotics offer promise for improving the ways we monitor and enforce rules in the ocean, while helping us improve the global state of knowledge about the oceans and coasts. 

USCG escorts suspected IUU fishing boat

At a recent workshop held on the Google campus in Mountain View, California, experts from across various spheres of ocean interests (maritime law, marine science and research, fisheries enforcement, and ocean philanthropy and advocacy) convened to strategize how emerging technologies can be leveraged to improve the future of marine protected area compliance and enforcement. The Ocean Agenda @ Google  attendees discussed the need for increased education and outreach on MPAs coupled with more cost-effective surveillance options to improve resource conservation and MPA effectiveness.   Workshop presentations ranged from research and developments on surveillance instruments, to the challenges faced by state and federal enforcement agents in targeting illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing , to the ongoing advancements at Google for viewing ocean data, ship traffic and marine boundary information.   Discussions on the advantages and limitations of existing as well as developing surveillance options, including  Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS),  Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones  offered compelling examples for how these technologies could change the future of maritime domain enforcement in coming years.

Vessel tracking in Google Earth

As one example, NOAA is exploring the use of the Puma UAS for monitoring the National Marine Sanctuaries in the U.S.  This 13-pound, battery-powered aircraft has a nine-foot wingspan, is equipped with real-time video and photo capability and be hand launched from land or a boat,  It is controlled remotely by a pilot and can fly for up to two hours on a single charge, covering a range of about 50 square miles.   This system is one of many being explored for mapping and monitoring species distribution as well as ocean use activities to support marine protected area management and enforcement.

NOAA Puma UAS being launched

But along with new tools for monitoring ocean users, workshop participants agreed that enforcement starts with awareness.  Improved outreach and education about MPAs is an essential first step toward heightening awareness and compliance of MPA regulations.  Getting MPAs boundaries onto more ocean maps and into more digital mapping applications that are routinely used by ocean users will broaden the reach about ocean issues, regulations as well as enforcement strategies.   And as the most widely used online mapping service in the world, Google Maps is working to assist in this effort by making marine boundary information more accessible and interpretable to a broad, international audience.  The Google Ocean team is committed to improving how the world views the oceans, by giving the blue 2/3rd of our planet its fair shake on the Google globe.

California MPA data shown in Google Earth

Through ongoing development of new tools that bring images and data on the worlds’ oceans to desktops, smartphones and digital devices worldwide, Googlers are helping connect people to ocean spaces and encourage support for marine resource protection.  Google users can now take a virtual dive below the ocean surface and view underwater panoramic images of some the ocean’s most pristine environments via the Google Oceans ‘Street View’ application.   With the Google Ocean team rallying to support improved maritime boundary awareness at the global scale, the future of MPA compliance and enforcement has a valuable ally, and an ally with the skills to push the limits of technology for the good of the ocean environment.

So while it’s unlikely that we will ever see sign posts in the ocean, MPA and ocean agencies may soon have a more diverse tool kit for improving awareness and compliance with the rules that keep our special places special.

Google Workshop Website for presentations and resources:

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Perhaps the education and creation of awareness should have begun in the site selection process, with efforts to give fishermen and other ocean users more of a sense of ownership in MPAs from the start, allowing them to participate in, and judge the efficacy of these "domains", especially as to replenishment of particular species. Also, since we no longer are relying on paper maps (or fences, gates, and kiosks), we can do away with large rectangles of poor programing and actually follow the real boundaries or contours of the natural habitat we're working with. Most career fishermen, once shown that there's value here, will police themselves and then aid in policing others. After all, it will then be their domain and stock to protect and not just the domain of ocean philanthropists and Googlers.

In no matter what field you look, there are always a couple 'bad apples'. And fishing is no exception. Thinking that the other fishermen will police these renegades is kinda like believing that sports players will snitch on their steroid popping buddies. Good luck with that... In the meantime, I will put my trust in the majority of honest players, and for the few who get off by stealing from the future, I say nail them with all the remote tech we've got. It's a lot more affordable that sending out cutters or C-130s...

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