Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Only in Canada?

I have to wonder if the monitoring system behind Canada's new "area to be avoided" could possibly work in the U.S. This 1,000 square nautical mile closure is meant to protect the northern right whale from ships travelling near Nova Scotia. It's a voluntary closure, so ships might participate only out of goodwill towards whales and fear of bad PR. But, in this case Aliant has partnered with Dalhousie University, allowing university researchers to place data receivers on nearby cell phone towers which then allow them to track vessel movements. Researchers say that since the closure took effect on June 1, there's some evidence that ships are avoiding the area but it's early days.

I don't know for certain, but I'm assuming from the researcher's description that they're relying on public AIS data. Automatic Identification Systems are required internationally on both passenger vessels and cargo ships over a certain size. You can read the Coast Guard's excitedly wordy description of it or see an example in San Francisco Bay; it's long range eyes and ears for ships. Large ship strikes are a major source of mortality for right whales, so tracking vessels with AIS may be enough, however, AIS is not required on fishing boats or small passenger boats in the due, in large parts, to confidentiality concerns.

If you're a big container ship you're traveling major shipping lanes, trying to avoid other ships, and perhaps the worst that might happen from advertising your position is that your boss knows if you're on time or not. If you're a fishing boat, you see your fishing spots and fishing style as proprietary business info, which is why fishing Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) have been so controversial. They're becoming more common but the sensitivity about the information remains and can lead to odd situations like the Coast Guard observing a violation at sea but being unable to call in local enforcement partners because there's no legal agreement to share confidential data. It's like a thief running into another county, while the cops hit the breaks at the border and curse.

In the days of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security, it may seem sweetly old-fashioned that the U.S. has any rules that make it difficult to track someone's whereabouts. But the ocean is a big place, a wide-open sea, and keeping track of all its boats is about keeping track of the public's resources. Fishermen have formed private cooperatives, pooling their data to help keep it private. Perhaps we could find some other models for data management from the IT world. Or maybe we'll have to rely on the fish themselves, which increasingly carry their very own radio tags, broadcasting their movements to the world.