A vast sea of illegal and unregulated fishing threatens food supplies and livelihoods worldwide, with the culprits almost impossible to see or catch. National Geographic Emerging Explorer and engineer Shah Selbe thinks technology could change that.
Shah Selbe created FishNET, a platform approach harnessing technology to detect and track illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing worldwide. He is a satellite propulsion systems engineer at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems and the Southern California region representative of Engineers Without Borders.
A tidal wave of illegal, unregulated fishing plagues our planet's oceans, threatening food supplies and livelihoods for billions worldwide. Shah Selbe believes technology is the one tool powerful enough to catch the culprits who catch the fish, before it's too late.
"Right now, illegal fishing is a low-risk, high-reward activity," says Selbe. "Our seas are vast and largely unmonitored, so crimes go undetected. Many countries don't own even one boat to patrol their waters. In fact, methods for protecting oceans haven't really changed since the 1950s. We need smarter, more cost-effective solutions for monitoring, tracking, and targeting enforcement. I'm convinced technology can help offset the lack of resources and personnel and let us find all those people who don't want to be found."
Selbe's brainchild, FishNET, was born during a Stanford University independent graduate study program with the Center for Ocean Solutions. "I knew that no single technology could solve every aspect of overfishing, so I developed FishNET as a road map to show an entire technology ecosystem that can be customized to help."
He hopes it will dramatically boost the efforts of coastal communities, government regulatory and enforcement agencies, NGOs, and industry. "I bring an engineering perspective to these groups, showing which technologies they could use and exactly how much it will cost."
Selbe's open-source, Internet-based platform tackles the problem on three levels: collecting, sharing, and managing information.
A range of high-tech ears and eyes can detect illegal fishing, polluting, and trespassing on marine protected areas. Acoustic hydrophones rest on the ocean floor and listen for vessel traffic. Synthetic aperture radar rides on satellites, seeing through clouds and total darkness to map the sea's surface and reveal ships as blips. Inexpensive shore-mounted balloons extend the range of radar, while unmanned drones keep watch from above. Vessel monitoring systems, the Coast Guard, and other groups collect a trove of additional information every day. A website and smartphone app Selbe is launching will use crowdsourcing to further expand the pool of timely, on-the-spot data, allowing Californians to report suspicious activity by snapping and sending photos.
"All these valuable databases exist in isolation," he notes. "Their true power can only be realized when they're combined and networked. Then we can finally address a global problem with global knowledge." FishNET provides the operational key. It overlays data from a wide range of sources and systems to accurately quantify the problem for the first time, share information internationally, and expose what's really happening.
"Most engineers in this field look for better ways to extract fish from oceans. I'm focused on better ways to keep them there," Selbe says.
The Pew Environment Group tapped him to create a technology framework that would work with its Global Campaign to End Illegal Fishing. Selbe has also helped the island nation of Palau protect its unique marine ecosystem, and he has advised the U.S. Department of State, environmental groups, and aquariums.
The ripple effect of overfishing is felt in kitchens, harbors, and underwater environments worldwide. Recent studies show that by 2050, global fish stocks could crash to unrecoverable levels. More than a billion people depend on oceans for their primary source of protein, yet 90 percent of the world's big fish have already disappeared.
"Fisherman lured into illegal operations become slave labor, so human rights issues are also at stake," says Selbe. "Developing countries are hit hardest. Illegal actors gravitate to places without resources to monitor, slip through local legal loopholes, and steal food and jobs from the planet's poorest people."
Selbe's passions lie not only at sea. Through longstanding leadership in Engineers Without Borders, he has built homes in Mexico, solar energy projects in Mali, water distribution systems in Malawi, and a rainwater catch system in Tanzania that lets students spend time in school instead of fetching water. When Selbe's employer, Boeing, learned of his involvement, they got involved too-donating grants, management consulting, and ongoing corporate support to the nonprofit.
Selbe sees a future brimming with both potential and perils. "We have unprecedented opportunities to improve the world. But only if we act in time."