MAST, champion for underwater maritime heritage and advocacy, has joined forces with OceanMind, a not-for-profit organisation which specialises in monitoring of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing for governments and the private sector, to harness the growing capabilities of the space sector.
Together we are launching an international Maritime Observatory to protect global underwater cultural heritage. It establishes a cross-sector team with strong government input that creates a hub for monitoring the maritime domain and sharing with relevant stakeholders to protect important maritime sites from illegal salvage.
The Observatory aims to help detect and thus deter looting of wreck sites – eg. merchant ships carrying valuable cargos and warships, many of which contain human remains, and sites at risk due to their pollution potential (oil and ordnance). Most looting centres on metal wrecks, principally WWI and WWII sites with non-ferrous metals of considerable value. This criminality is not limited to the maritime domain and often enmeshes wider illegal activities.
The Observatory uses a combination of satellites, artificial and human intelligence to study and detect such illegal activity developing patterns to promote the evolution of a predictive intelligence tool.
Many protected sites around the world are inadequately monitored by the authorities, affording criminals opportunity to conduct illegal salvage with impunity, resulting in culturally important relics being lost, with graves desecrated. Illegal salvage operations in some areas are occurring on an industrial scale. Operators appear to see certain post 1870 metal wrecks as income when legal contracts are unavailable.
Concern regarding some wrecks is compounded by the fear that not only is their destruction destroying a natural habitat for sea life but also that some sites, weakened by decades underwater, will leak fuel oil once their hulls are breached by grabbers or explosives.
Taking into account the evident impossibility of patrolling all areas of the sea and the dwindling resources of individual governments, the Observatory was born.
In 2019 a pilot study was conducted to assess the feasibility and potential of the Observatory concept. The study, conducted over three months, assessed the use of satellite derived imagery, remote sensing and AIS data to accomplish three tasks:
- Model the activities of looters by tracking vessels of interest and assess the methodology of using satellite-based technology to enforce compliance with the law.
- Assess levels of fishing activities on a selected group of historic shipwreck sites and assess the value to the development of heritage management policy.
- Evaluate the concept to assess the most efficient approaches and identify potential beneficiaries of this service
The study achieved all three aims. Vessels of interest were successfully analysed across a six-year period, allowing a predictive pattern of activity to be established which can be replicated in future work. The monitoring of sites also successfully mapped the pattern of life over these wrecks, providing strong insights on the levels of fishing. The study indicates a clear need for a continuation of the support provided by the Observatory beyond the pilot stage. It has demonstrated that by pairing expertise and knowledge with advanced technologies, the Observatory can enable effective enforcement and compliance for the protection of maritime heritage sites, and disseminate the information gathered to authorities that can put this information to use.