Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Comparing Canada's Northern Watch to Kiribati's Global Fishing Watch

          By Brian Orlotti

The recent failure of the Canadian government's "Northern Watch" program of Arctic air and maritime surveillance, when compared to governmental and private efforts currently in place in other nations, is a reminder that low cost space assets could play a central role in such a system.

It's not as though the Canadian government doesn't understand the benefits of space based surveillance. Perhaps is just prefers to have its programs associated with high costs, long lead times and multiple levels of bureaucracy. The illustration above, from the website of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), shows the kind of weather forecasting that the proposed, Polar Communication and Weather (PCW) constellation of two Earth imaging satellites could have provided when the program completed its first milestone (a "Phase 0" assessment) in September 2008. However, as outlined in the July 18th, 2016 Nunatsiaq News post, "Arctic satellites should serve northerners," the incomplete PCW was all but cancelled in 2016 over concerns about cost and functionality, and amidst bureaucratic infighting between Environment Canada and the Canadian military. For more, check out the July 17th, 2016 post, "The Polar Communications & Weather Satellite (PCW) Mission is Dead; To Revive it, our Military Wants More Money." Graphic c/o CSA.

As outlined in the January 29th, 2017 Toronto Star post, "Bid to monitor traffic in Arctic waters hits snags," the Northern Watch project, was run by the Canadian military’s R&D wing, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) from 2007 to 2015.

PM Harper. Photo c/o Wikipedia.
Born of a 2005 election promise by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper to assert Canadian Arctic sovereignty, the project attempted to develop a year-round surveillance system in Canada’s Arctic waters through the use of underwater acoustic sensors, supplemented by land-based cameras and satellite imagery. Northern Watch was based out of Gascoyne Inlet on Nunavut’s Devon Island. The Barrow Strait, on the south shore of the island, is considered a natural choke-point for arctic ship traffic.

As outlined in the article, after eight years of effort, Northern Watch was only capable of monitoring marine traffic twice, and only then for a few weeks during the hospitable Arctic summers. During the system’s last test in the summer of 2015, twenty-one different vessels were logged transiting the Barrow Strait.

According to the DRDC, several reasons contributed to the failure of Northern Watch; insufficient funding, high fuel and transport costs, equipment failures and technical issues. Although a technical failure, the political rhetoric surrounding the project helped carry Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to victory (and nearly a decade of rule) in the 2006 federal election.

The current Canadian government, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has recently requested proposals for an Arctic air and maritime surveillance system under a new $133Mln CDN research program to boost Canadian Arctic sovereignty and replace Northern Watch.

A screenshot of the GFW website, taken on February 14th, 2017. Although not a direct equivalency to previous Canadian government plans to track Arctic activities, the GFW systems could certainly be implemented on a commercial basis in the arctic as commercial satellite coverage of the far north improves. For a list of proposed satellite constellations, their coverage and proposed date of service, check out the November 20th, 2016 post, "SpaceX, Telesat & Kepler Just Three of the Dozen Satellite Constellations Currently on the FCC Table." Graphic c/o GFW.

Maybe they could buy something "off the shelf." An example of this, as outlined in the September 19th, 2016 post, "New Leonardo DiCaprio App Tracks Fishy Things on the High Seas," could certainly start with the free service championed by the famous actor.

Actor DiCaprio. Photo c/o Forbes.
In September 2016, DiCaprio unveiled Global Fishing Watch (GFW) which utilizes satellite imagery to enable the public to monitor global fishing activity in an attempt to curb illegal fishing and rebuild depleted fish stocks.

The service is a partnership between the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, SkyTruth, Oceana and Google. GFW uses satellite imagery provided by Orbcomm Inc. and is available online to anyone with an internet connection and a WebGL-capable browser.

Adopting a crowd-sourcing approach, GFW enables the public and non-government organizations (NGOs) to track fishing vessels around the world through a combination of ship transponder beacons, radar data from nearby ships, and ships’ wakes as they travel through water.

The project cost $10.3Mln US ($13.6Mln CDN) over the past three years to build, with $6Mln ($7.92Mln CDN) of that contributed by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in January, 2016.

GFW scored an initial success within its first month of operation. Kiribati, an island republic in the central Pacific comprised of 33 coral atolls and isles, has used GFW data to reveal illegal fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, declared off-limits to commercial fishing in January 2015. The offending ship’s owners were fined $1Mln US ($1.32Mln CDN) along with a "goodwill" donation of another $1Mln.

The failure of the Northern Watch project and the (at least initial) success of Global Fishing Watch prove the truth of Frank Herbert’s dictum, “A plan depends as much upon execution as it does upon concept.”

Future Canadian efforts at northern surveillance should take heed.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network administrator at KPMG and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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