Maritime Domain Awareness - How technology is improving compliance and enforcement of MPAs

May 13, 2014 by Mimi D'Iorio, PhD, NOAA National MPA Center (on detail to NOAA Coastal Services Center)

drawing of a diver looking at a sign underwater that says now entering a marine protected area
No signs like this in the ocean!

There aren't sign posts in the ocean, no billboards or ranger-staffed kiosks alerting ocean-goers that they are entering a special area where certain activities are regulated or prohibited. Unlike on land, special areas in the ocean are not marked or gated or fenced. So without posted boundaries, public compliance to MPA regulations relies on effective outreach and education, as well routine monitoring and enforcement.

But agencies tasked with surveillance and enforcement of MPA boundaries face logistical and economic challenges of monitoring large expanses of ocean with limited staff, small fleets and diminishing budgets. And with some offenders engaging in illegal activities at night or far from port, the need to have enforcement "boots on deck" to issue a citation is often not always a feasible option. This enforcement gap can contribute to MPAs seeming to be "paper parks". But new and emerging technologies in remote sensing and robotics offer promise for improving the ways we monitor and enforce rules in the ocean, while helping us improve the global state of knowledge about the oceans and coasts.

USCG escorts suspected IUU fishing boat
USCG escorts suspected IUU fishing boat

At a recent workshop held on the Google campus in Mountain View, California, experts from across various spheres of ocean interests (maritime law, marine science and research, fisheries enforcement, and ocean philanthropy and advocacy) convened to strategize how emerging technologies can be leveraged to improve the future of marine protected area compliance and enforcement. The Ocean Agenda @ Google attendees discussed the need for increased education and outreach on MPAs coupled with more cost-effective surveillance options to improve resource conservation and MPA effectiveness. Workshop presentations ranged from research and developments on surveillance instruments, to the challenges faced by state and federal enforcement agents in targeting illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing , to the ongoing advancements at Google for viewing ocean data, ship traffic and marine boundary information. Discussions on the advantages and limitations of existing as well as developing surveillance options, including Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones offered compelling examples for how these technologies could change the future of maritime domain enforcement in coming years.

view of the earth from google earth
Vessel tracking in Google Earth
man launching an uas
NOAA Puma UAS being launched

As one example, NOAA is exploring the use of the Puma UAS for monitoring the National Marine Sanctuaries in the U.S. This 13-pound, battery-powered aircraft has a nine-foot wingspan, is equipped with real-time video and photo capability and be hand launched from land or a boat, It is controlled remotely by a pilot and can fly for up to two hours on a single charge, covering a range of about 50 square miles. This system is one of many being explored for mapping and monitoring species distribution as well as ocean use activities to support marine protected area management and enforcement.

But along with new tools for monitoring ocean users, workshop participants agreed that enforcement starts with awareness. Improved outreach and education about MPAs is an essential first step toward heightening awareness and compliance of MPA regulations. Getting MPAs boundaries onto more ocean maps and into more digital mapping applications that are routinely used by ocean users will broaden the reach about ocean issues, regulations as well as enforcement strategies. And as the mostwidely used online mapping service in the world, Google Maps is working to assist in this effort by making marine boundary information more accessible and interpretable to a broad, international audience. The Google Ocean team is committed to improving how the world views the oceans, by giving the blue 2/3rd of our planet its fair shake on the Google globe.

Through ongoing development of new tools that bring images and data on the worlds' oceans to desktops, smartphones and digital devices worldwide, Googlers are helping connect people to ocean spaces and encourage support for marine resource protection. Google users can now take a virtual dive below the ocean surface and view underwater panoramic images of some the ocean's most pristine environments via the Google Oceans 'Street View' application. With the Google Ocean team rallying to support improved maritime boundary awareness at the global scale, the future of MPA compliance and enforcement has a valuable ally, and an ally with the skills to push the limits of technology for the good of the ocean environment.

view fo california mpa data in google earth
California MPA data shown in Google Earth

So while it's unlikely that we will ever see sign posts in the ocean, MPA and ocean agencies may soon have a more diverse tool kit for improving awareness and compliance with the rules that keep our special places special.

Google Workshop Website for presentations and resources: