Are We Moving toward an Ocean Data Dystopia?
The ocean data revolution can help states improve offshore governance. But policymakers should consider how ownership over ocean data distributes power, so that seafaring superpowers, such as China and Russia, do not exploit uneven access to data to dominate marine resources.
Technology may soon track every shoal of tuna in the sea. Satellites can already locate every ship. We are, according to experts, living through an “ocean data revolution.” But while unprecedented transparency can help states improve offshore governance, it also creates risks that must be managed. Seafaring superpowers, such as China and Russia, can exploit uneven access to data to dominate marine resources, particularly where ocean governance is weak. Before that happens, U.S. policymakers should consider how ownership over ocean data distributes power. They should lead the construction of a public ocean technology system that helps developing states apply data to marine resource management to compete in the new, blue economy. Otherwise, the data-blind may be left to fish for empty seawater.
The ocean data revolution is making the sea’s wealth and workers visible by helping officials overcome the opacity of saltwater and vast distances offshore. Drones with advanced radar, for example, are being designed to sound out the silhouettes of fish below water, tracking them as they move between exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and adjust to changing conditions. Scientists are beginning to use environmental DNA sequencing to trace the presence of key species of marine life by sampling seawater. These new datasets allow analysts to distill the ocean into spatially and temporally distinct qualities that can be easily assessed, translated, and marketed. Sardine density, for example, or water temperature 500 feet below the surface, or the concentration of manganese nodes on the seafloor are all data that, when readily available, have huge value for resource management or resource exploitation. Data is making the complicated world offshore legible.
James C. Scott, a Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale, explains how the way data makes the world legible in turn distributes power in his book Seeing Like a State:
A thoroughly legible society eliminates local monopolies of information and creates a kind of national transparency through the uniformity of codes, identities, statistics, regulations, and measures. . . . It is likely to create new positional advantages for those at the apex who have the knowledge and access to easily decipher the new state-created format.
Data provides a helpful view of the world, but only to those with the technology to access it and the knowhow to interpret and use it. Powerful states and corporations, for example, can use new digital portraits of the ocean to more efficiently map fishing and deep-sea mining effort to resource locations.
Ideally, technology would lead to an “open, actionable, and equitable digital ecosystem for the ocean” that disperses the benefits of data to vulnerable ocean-users as well—the goal put forth in a High Level Panel for A Sustainable Ocean Economy paper on the subject. Full information could help data-poor, fish-rich countries in West Africa and the Pacific manage their fisheries. It might unlock the one billion protein-filled meals squandered by overfishing each year.
There are initiatives already attempting to create that open data ecosystem. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is supporting the development of an “Ocean of Things,” which would deploy floating sensors to track ocean features from wave heights to nearby ships and marine life. Data would be made freely available, though, as of now, the project has deployed just 6,000 of the 18 million floats required for complete coverage. The Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and the World Economic Forum’s Ocean Data Alliance, meanwhile, both attempt to coordinate ocean data collection and to freely publish the results. But for policymakers in developing states, access to information alone is not sufficient. Limited resources leave them unable to transform raw data into tools for ocean governance. And many artisanal fishers do not have the technology to reach public data streams at all.
The alternative—if those open-source efforts fail to extend actionable information beyond the West—is that data will be controlled and used by the powerful. That would be dangerous. In the worst-case scenario, a few authoritarian states would pour money into closed-off ocean surveillance systems built to optimize resource extraction. China’s onshore surveillance system, huge appetite for ocean resources, and surging spending on technology place it among the likeliest candidates to develop a proprietary offshore monitoring system. (A Chinese company is already building a parallel Ocean of Things.) It is easy, though, to imagine other states, and even private fishing corporations, constructing something similar. Meanwhile, the high cost of funding efforts that distribute data and analytical capacity to developing states would leave the 22 million small-scale fishers in them unable to compete.
How might such a scenario play out? Say China develops a satellite constellation that tracks coast guard vessels in the Pacific in real time and distributes that technology to every trawler, longliner, and squid jigger in its maritime militia. Chinese captains would be able to fish illegally anywhere, safe from inspection by foreign law enforcement.
Climate change will further exacerbate the information asymmetry between fishers operating out of powerful states like China with access to technology and those in developing states without access. As the ocean warms, fish stocks are, on average, moving poleward 50 kilometers per decade. Ranges shifts will make fish hard to find for artisanal fishers, who often rely on knowledge accrued over decades that may be less attuned to the rapid global change occurring.
However, states that employ radar, satellites, and machine learning algorithms—and that have access to robust fisheries science programs—will have fewer problems locating moving stocks. They might employ climate-linked ecosystem models to pinpoint tuna stocks adjusting to warming. By stationing purse seiners just outside the EEZ of Kiribati—a country of just 100,000 people, but that produces 40 percent of the Pacific’s tuna—foreign fleets already track and scoop up Kiribati’s fish whenever they cross into the high seas. As technology allows distant water fleets to capitalize on accelerating range shifts, Kiribati will increasingly lose sovereignty over its own natural wealth.
To take advantage of the ocean data revolution, then, we need to grapple with the ways data distributes power. Policymakers should lay out concrete actions that governments can take to make the digital ocean ecosystem work for its potential casualties: fishers in developing countries and non-state groups—like regional fisheries management organizations—unable to finance cutting-edge tech.
The U.S. government can help by serving as a trusted data broker. It might start by creating an ocean data fusion center: a centralized index of fish stock status and movement, and of vessel activities and criminal records. It should combine and publish as much unclassified data as possible, from the Pentagon, the intelligence community, monitoring agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and even nonprofits like Global Fishing Watch. Data will also need to be made useful. U.S. fisheries managers should expand their effort to support counterparts in developing states and share lessons in applying new technology to improving ocean health.
The ocean data revolution will only succeed if the actors committed to the sustainable and just use of ocean resources can come together to make data useful for vulnerable coastal communities. If they cannot, the ocean may become a dystopia—exploited by authoritarians and controlled as the world’s largest surveilled space.