RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's start our next story with this fact. Most of the seafood Americans eat comes from waters far away. A lot of that is caught illegally by vessels that ignore catch limits or that fish in areas off-limits to fishing. No one knows for sure how much illegal fishing goes on because the oceans are too big to patrol. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on some new developments that could help nab seafood pirates.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: ProFish is a big seafood distributor in Washington, D.C. It's in a part of town tourists never see - a compound of brick warehouses. Inside, a maze of high-ceilinged rooms where workers filet fish on cutting cables and hose down cement floors. Giant refrigeration units keep the place numbingly cold.
JOHN RORAPAUGH: My name is John Rorapaugh. I'm the sustainable director with ProFish Limited. We're a wholesale distributor.
JOYCE: Rorapaugh says sustainable seafood is caught or farmed in ways that don't threaten fish populations or harm the environment. Here, the fish lie in tubs of crushed ice - steel-colored tuna and glittering striped bass. There's a fish with a yellow stripe like a Nike swoosh.
JOYCE: And that's beautiful. That has yellow along the belly, and...
RORAPAUGH: You should see when it first comes out of the water. It is just the most beautiful fish.
JOYCE: To assure its pedigree as sustainable, a fish needs a story - its genus and species, who caught it, when and where it was caught. Rorapaugh says fish caught in the U.S. come with that information. But imported seafood usually does not.
RORAPAUGH: God forbid you ask where it was caught. Most people, by the time they get to us, have no idea.
JOYCE: Would you like to have that information?
RORAPAUGH: Of course. I would love to see more chain of custody. And I think that's what the consumer wants. We're seeing that people want to buy fish that have a story, are sustainable and clearly are legal.
JOYCE: But a lot of imported seafood is illegal, caught in protected areas or from over-fished populations. Tracking the illegal trade is a nightmare. A fish could be caught by a Korean vessel, say, shipped to a Chinese packing plant and sold to a distributor in Canada before it gets to the U.S. But now there's a new way to monitor the trade at its very start on the high seas by watching it from space. John Amos runs a small organization in West Virginia called SkyTruth. He started out collecting satellite images of oil spills in the ocean. In 2011, he learned about the automatic identification system, or AIS. It's meant to prevent ship collisions at sea.
JOHN AMOS: Those AIS communication broadcasts can be picked up by orbiting satellites.
JOYCE: Large ships carry electronic devices that constantly broadcast the ship's location and heading. The signal includes the boat's name and where it's from. Working with Google, Amos developed software that uses AIS signals to track up to 150,000 vessels all over the world. He's now collaborating with the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit that's trying to curb illegal fishing. He learned how to recognize the kind of movement on a map that indicates a boat is fishing.
AMOS: It's kind of a slow, back and forth movement that would indicate they've put fishing gear like long lines with baited hooks into the water.
JOYCE: Now clearly, Amos can't watch all the world's oceans. Instead, he's been watching areas pinpointed by experts at Pew, such as new marine reserves and places frequented by pirate fishing vessels. Last month, Amos was tracking both near Palau, an island nation in the Pacific near Indonesia. He spotted one following that telltale fishing pattern. The AIS data revealed it was a Taiwanese boat. He contacted officials in Palau, who said the boat was fishing illegally.
AMOS: The authorities in Palau decided to try to intercept it. And they sent their patrol boat out.
JOYCE: Amos, in West Virginia, used the AIS data to guide the patrol boat to the fishing vessel.
AMOS: Kind of a nail-biting time, where we're sitting in the office past midnight and monitoring our computer screen so that we could provide updated location information to the authorities in Palau that they could relay to the patrol boat.
JOYCE: Authorities boarded the vessel. According to the Palau government, it was crammed with illegally caught tuna and shark fins. So AIS tracking works. But it's limited. It only transmits data on a ship's location and identity. And a ship captain can switch it off. So the Pew Trusts is now acquiring actual images of ships taken from satellite cameras and radar.
TONY LONG: You can see what type of vessel it is, any activity on deck and, indeed, if there's fishing gear in the water.
JOYCE: Tony Long was an electronic warfare expert with the Royal Navy and is now head of Pew's Ending Illegal Fishing campaign. One thing he looks for is the transfer of fish from one vessel to another. It's not illegal, but it's often a way to launder illegally caught fish - to mix it with a legal catch, for example.
LONG: You can see, quite clearly, two vessels side-by-side.
JOYCE: The satellite system has already caught at least two boats fishing illegally. But it can't catch every pirated fish. And once a fish reaches land, the route to the American dinner table gets, well...
BETH LOWELL: Opaque, vague, foggy.
JOYCE: Beth Lowell is a fisheries expert at Oceana, another organization trying to curb illegal fishing. Lowell says when it comes to stories, even spinach has a clearer plotline than fish.
LOWELL: If you look on the bag of some bagged spinach, you can put in a code and track it back to the farm it came from.
JOYCE: The federal government is now drafting a plan that would encourage governments and international organizations to document every link in the whole seafood chain, something Lowell calls a traceability.
LOWELL: It got picked up at the warehouse. It's on shipment to the next site. It's on a plane. Now it's on your doorstep. And that's what we want to be able to do with seafood.
JOYCE: The government is due to publish its plan this spring. If it works, more of your fish may be coming with a tail attached. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And a quick note. Chris mentioned the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is an NPR underwriter.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.