Albatross equipped with radar detectors can form a “law enforcement team” to monitor illegal fishing vessels

Back in 2017, an international team of researchers published a study that found that nearly 80 percent of birds such as albatrosses have the habit of flying with fishing boats, and that large seabirds seem to be attracted by the lure of free dinner on board. How these laws of nature can be used to help protect biological populations, and scientists have equipped birds that tail ships with tracking devices that have been found to be used to detect and monitor illegal fishing practices.

To turn albatrosses into high-flying patrols, scientists at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and the University of Liverpool have created a small solar device that can be mounted on the albatross’s back. Inside, there is a GPS antenna to monitor its position, an antenna to detect the ship’s radar, and a third antenna to relay data back to base.

This special “law enforcement team” has now begun to take shape, with 169 birds, demonstrating how this technology can fill the huge loopholes in tracking illegal fishing. All registered fishing vessels are required by law to turn on the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which transmits the identity, location and path of the vessel. The question is whether the AIS will not open until the end or the owner of the ship.

On the other hand, radar systems usually help ships navigate and avoid collisions with other vessels, and for safety reasons, shipowners generally do not turn them off, allowing patrolled albatrosses to spot them.

Seabird patrols can detect fishing boats up to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away, and when approached, devices mounted on their backs pick up radar signals and reveal the ship’s location to scientists. With the AIS on, it can be checked in the vessel’s real-time database, and if the vessel cannot be found, it is likely to indicate illegal activity.

Scientists asked albatross law enforcement teams to monitor much of the Southern Ocean over a six-month period. During that time, the birds detected radar on 353 ships and found that about a third of the AIS systems were turned off.

Following this early success, the technology is now being tested in New Zealand and Hawaii, and researchers hope it could be used to protect other marine life, such as sharks and turtles.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.