Albatross kitted out with radar detectors spy on illegal fishing boats
Back in 2017, an international research team published a study finding that nearly 80 percent of albatross follow fishing boats, with the large seabirds seemingly lured in by the prospect of a free dinner. A continuation of this research has shown how these tendencies could be leveraged to aid in conservation efforts, with the scientists equipping the trailing birds with tracking devices that can reveal the presence of shady fishing operations.
In order to turn the albatross into a high-flying patrol force, scientists from France's National Centre for Scientific Research and the University of Liverpool compiled small, solar-powered units that could be mounted onto their backs. Inside was a GPS antenna to monitor their location, an antenna to detect the radar of ships, and another antenna to relay data back to base.
The fleet amounts to 169 birds in all, who demonstrated how this technique may be able to fill a large hole in the efforts to track illegal fishing activity. All registered fishing vessels are required by law to have an automated identification system (AIS) switched on, which transmits their identity, location and path through the water. The trouble is, it is not always in their best interests to have them switched on.
The radar systems, on the other hand, are always required to help them navigate and to avoid collisions with other vessels. And this is what can reveal their presence to the patrolling albatross overhead.
The seabirds can spot fishing vessels from up to 30 km (18.6 mi) away, and on approach the devices mounted to their backs pick up the radar signal and reveal the boat's position to the scientists. This can then be checked against a live database of vessels with their AIS switched on, and if the boat is nowhere to be found, it may well be indicative of illegal activity.
The scientists had the fleet of albatross monitor a large section of the Southern Ocean over the course of six months. The birds detected radar from 353 vessels throughout that time period, and found that around a third of those had their AIS systems switched off.
Following this early success, the technology is now being tested in New Zealand and Hawaii, with the researchers hopeful that it could be adapted for use on other marine creatures such as sharks and sea turtles.
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.