Facial recognition software is most commonly known as a tool to help police identify a suspected criminal by using machine learning algorithms to analyze his or her face against a database of thousands or millions of other faces. The larger the database, with a greater variety of facial features, the smarter and more successful the software becomes – effectively learning from its mistakes to improve its accuracy.
Now, this type of artificial intelligence is starting to be used in fighting a specific but pervasive type of crime – illegal fishing. Rather than picking out faces, the software tracks the movement of fishing boats to root out illegal behavior. And soon, using a twist on facial recognition, it may be able to recognize when a boat’s haul includes endangered and protected fish.
Within seconds of being hauled onto the Shen Lain Cheng, a 79-foot tuna fishing boat from China, the crew’s most senior member, whose deeply wrinkled face conveys more than his 58 years, is plunging a T-handled spike between the glistening eyes of a 100-lb yellowfin tuna. The hope is that the swift death has minimized the release of lactic acid, which degrades the flesh meat and reduces the crew’s chances of earning a grade-A for this fish once it is offloaded back at port in Koror, Palau, a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean.
He quickly eviscerates the taut, silvery fish, pulling out an assembly of organs that look like something from another planet. He removes the heart and stomach – the scavenged parts that will likely go into tonight’s crew dinner – and tosses the rest of the guts overboard before flushing the carcass with running water, sewing up its gaping mouth, and placing it into the icy waters of the boat’s cold storage tank.
If the buyers back in Koror, who inspect and score the quality of each tuna’s meat, give it a high grade, this particular tuna could net around $2,800 wholesale in Japan, where it will be resold at great profit in a sushi restaurant.
It all looks like a typical day of tuna wrangling on the high seas, except that it’s not. Aboard are Lotus Vermeer, who manages the Pacific tuna program for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a US-based environmental organization. Also aboard are Michael Musyl, principal scientist of the Pelagic Research Group in Hawaii and a shark expert, and Ivan Sesebo, a tuna fishery observer, who works for an auditor hired by the boat’s owner, Hong Kong-based Luen Thai Fishing Ventures, to ensure compliance with fishing regulations.
Journalists like to lean on anecdotes to tell stories about climate change, but for climate scientists, data is everything. But data collection is seldom a quick or inexpensive task, especially when that data is best acquired via a bird’s eye view of, say, an undulating coastline or a vast expanse of ice.
Fortunately, drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs], or unmanned aerial systems [UASs]) can serve as robotic avian minions, filling niches for which the conventional methods of aerial data collection — like chartering planes or tapping into satellite data — are poorly suited.
Drones are not new, nor are climate scientists only now discovering their utility as research tools. “Back in 1998, we used what was considered a smaller UAV at that time” for studying ice cover in the Arctic, says James Maslanik, a research professor emeritus from the aerospace engineering sciences department at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “It was a cutting-edge system, it was way ahead of its time,” he says of the fixed-wing UAV they employed. It had a three-meter wingspan, a four-kilogram payload limit, and was gas-powered. Maslanik recalls having to drag 50-gallon drums of aviation fuel up to their research station in the Arctic just to get the UAV in the air.
Everyone agrees that nature has value. It clothes, feeds and shelters us – and provides a spectacular playground. Yet we have never put a value on everything nature offers.
Now, environmental and sustainable business consultants want to change that by forcing corporate leaders to take stock of the economic impact of how they manage natural resources. By accounting for this so-called natural capital, the advocates hope to see more businesses adopting practices that are both good for the environment and long term profitability, especially as climate change will further deplete natural resources, causing their values to climb and increase the cost of running business. In a 1997 paper in Nature that first introduced the natural capital concept, the 13 researchers involved pegged the Earth’s worth at $33tn. A 2014 revision raised that figure to $134tn.
Assigning values to nature isn’t just good for business – the public and wildlife benefit too. Take the example of the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau, which is nearly wholly dependent on tourism. Revenue from scuba diving to view sharks alone accounts for 8% of the country’s gross domestic product. That means the small number of sharks in the prime dive areas are worth a great deal. In 2011, researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science calculated that a shark’s natural capital to the tourism industry is a remarkable $1.9m over its lifetime. The lifetime value of the sharks if they were part of a legal fishery would be less than 1% of that figure.