AI, satellite imagery could help end slavery on fishing vessels

Satellites and AI could help end slavery in the fishing industry.

Although slavery might seem like an issue of the past, it is still a very real problem in many parts of the world. On the high seas, it runs rampant with few regulatory agencies to keep the illegal practice in check. Now, scientists want to use artificial intelligence (AI) and satellite imagery to put an end to slavery at sea, Gizmodo reports.

A study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 57,000 to 100,000 people were forced to work aboard fishing vessels between 2012 and 2018.

That staggering number likely comes as a surprise to many. With the help of new technologies, it may be possible to put an end to the horrific practice.

Cracking Down on Trafficking

Due to the widely dispersed nature of slavery on fishing vessels, it is difficult to identify those who are responsible. Moreover, the fact that ships hail from a variety of countries and ports means that regulators have a difficult time keeping track of a vessel’s patterns.

Fortunately, satellites aren’t hindered by borders or the vastness of the oceans. A satellite tracking setup called the Automatic Identification System provided data for the recent study. Researchers analyzed ship movements around the world and spoke with experts on human trafficking to train a machine learning model that can identify high-risk ships, Gizmodo reports.

Vessels deemed to be high risk were identified with a variety of factors. For instance, things like how often ships made trips to sea, how far out they went, and time spent away from port played a key role in identifying vessels that may be using slave labor.

Meanwhile, researchers monitored ships flying different flags to determine if a vessel’s country of origin played a role. Ships hailing from China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were found to be the most dangerous.

On top of this, data revealed that ships operating with known slave labor visited 17 countries. Another 64 countries were visited by high-risk ships, as determined by the AI.

Necessary Solution

Given the data collected in the recent study, it’s clear that something needs to be done about high seas labor exploitation. Although satellite and AI tracking is a good start, it isn’t enough.

Gavin McDonald, the project’s lead researcher from the University of California, told Gizmodo that forced labor at sea (particularly in the fishing industry) has “been a pervasive problem that’s been very hard to shed a brighter light on. However, with new satellite-based vessel monitoring and AI, we’re now able to assess forced labor risk in a global way that was never before possible.”

Thanks to the new approach, law enforcement agencies could be better prepared to perform inspections of high-risk vessels or ports that are identified as trafficking hubs. McDonald added, “Our colleagues at Global Fishing Watch are meanwhile taking this proof-of-concept model and building it out into an actionable inspection tool.”

Moving forward, it will take a combined effort to put a stop to this problem. With tools like AI at their disposal, researchers and law enforcement agencies are better prepared to help those being exploited every day.


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