// NORTH PACIFIC // HAWAII

Can you hear me now?

A university lab designs underwater microphones to listen for and detect illegal fishing and incursions into MPAs

By Ariella Knight

Acoustics expert Martin Siderius is a problem solver. With a background in electrical and computer engineering, he has devoted himself to figuring out the problem of underwater acoustics – detecting and deciphering underwater noises – with the help of his trusty colleagues at the Northwest Electromagnetics and Acoustics Research Laboratory (NEAR-lab) at Portland State University. The underwater acoustics and communications tinkering going on at NEAR-lab caught the attention of The Nature Conservancy, who came into the picture with a new goal in mind: catching illegal fishermen.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
The underwater acoustics and communications tinkering going on at NEAR-lab caught the attention of The Nature Conservancy, who came into the picture with a new goal in mind: catching illegal fishermen.

SOS 

The Nature Conservancy wanted to figure out a way to combat the illegal fishing that was decimating the fish stocks and threatening the livelihoods of the local fishing communities they were working with around the world. They approached the NEAR-lab team to build a “low cost sensor to give legal fishermen that they could deploy and recover by themselves.” The Nature Conservancy was in luck – NEAR-lab was in the process of developing algorithms for hydrophones (underwater microphones) to be able to identify different vessels by the sounds they emit. Ideally, these sound patterns could then be understood as specific activities – commercial shipping, transshipping (moving products from one ship to another while at sea), and fishing – as well as sourced to the location of the sound origin. Together this information could possibly identify illegal fishing in a protected area.

With this serendipitous timing, NEAR-lab and The Nature Conservancy teamed up to take this project to the next level. And where better to do that than in Hawaii, with its vast MPAs and endless biodiversity.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
The Nature Conservancy approached the NEAR-lab team to build a “low cost sensor to give legal fishermen that they could deploy and recover by themselves.”

Testing, 1, 2, 3

The NEAR-lab team worked with the Nature Conservancy to deploy hydrophones in a total of 11 locations in two Hawaiian MPAs: Ahihi-Kinau Natural Marine Reserve and the Pupukea Sanctuary. Left listening underwater over the course of four days, the sensors recorded more than 95 hours of ocean sounds. Upon recovering the sensors, the team discovered that not only were they able to detect vessel sounds, they could distinctly observe acoustics patterns that align with poaching activities, as determined by boat speed and distance patterns. The hydrophones also picked up sounds across a wide distance - for the smaller MPA, the Pupukea Sanctuary, one sensor covered the entire reserve. But it doesn’t stop there. These hydrophones also picked up on the acoustics of whale populations, discovering that one sensor can wear two hats: illegal fishing watchdog (listen dog?) and researcher.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
Left listening underwater over the course of four days, the sensors recorded more than 95 hours of ocean sounds.

Under-charted Waters

The successful testing in Hawaii convinced Siderius that “autonomous sensing in general is the future of this kind of work.” In the past you had to “charter boats or use research vessels for $10,000 a day,” explained Siderius, but nowadays emerging technology, like hydrophones, are cutting these costs significantly. 

In spite of this, there is a dearth of research being done on developing technology to address this problem. In fact, had The Nature Conservancy not approached the NEAR-lab team, they likely wouldn’t have gotten involved in the fight to combat illegal fishing. Siderius cites a few reasons why researchers may be reluctant to engage on this problem, stating that “the areas to protect are much bigger than I imagined, resources to solve this problem are much lower than I imagined, and coming up with a solution requires a lot of resources.”

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
The successful testing in Hawaii convinced Siderius that “autonomous sensing in general is the future of this kind of work.”

Coming to a Theater Near You

Since the test concluded, Siderius continues to make acoustic engineering sound cool - and I should know, I spent an hour on the phone with him. His lab is now experimenting with attaching hydrophones to gliders, a type of unmanned underwater vehicle, instead of leaving them stationary tied to buoys. They are experimenting with ways to communicate with the hydrophones by having the gliders take them the surface to communicate necessary information back to shore using a satellite phone. Tests in the Gulf of Mexico early last year were a roaring success, as Siderius modestly admitted that, “it was pretty amazing to sit in the office and talk to your vehicle that’s out in the ocean somewhere.” 

While Siderius and his team at NEAR-lab make clear that “we are not claiming to be experts on this, and we do not have a solution,” they are at the forefront of figuring out how low cost hydrophones can revolutionize efforts to protect MPAs and combat illegal fishing. “There’s a technology deployment role and a research piece here that hasn’t been done yet,” states Siderius, “and we are ready to do it.” 

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
There’s a technology deployment role and a research piece here that hasn’t been done yet,” states Siderius, “and we are ready to do it.”

Technologies Used

// ACOUSTIC MONITORING

Hi-Tech HTI 92WB

Categorized as a defense hydrophone, this hydrophone comes equipped with a preamplifier allows the hydrophone to pick up on difficult-to-hear noises, making this an ideal instrument for discerning vessel sounds from those of marine animals.

Product Details Acoustic Monitoring
// EUROPE // SWEDEN

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Onboard monitoring technology works with fishing fleets and insurance companies to make our oceans more transparent By Ariella Knight

// SOUTH PACIFIC // PITCAIRN ISLANDS

Gliding to Secure Oceans

How a side project to design an environmentally friendly technology to record the "singing" of Humpback whales turned into a revolution of fuel-free autonomous power on our oceans. By Ariella Knight

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