Government of Canada launches international program to track illegal fishing using satellite technology

News release

February 24, 2021

Ottawa, Ontario - Internationally, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a major contributor to the decline of fish stocks and marine habitat destruction. It also undermines the livelihoods of our legitimate fish harvesters.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has launched a new program in collaboration with the Department of National Defence, Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science, Global Affairs Canada, and MDA to detect vessels engaging in IUU fishing, also known as “dark vessels”.

The $7 million Dark Vessel Detection program uses satellite technology to locate and track vessels whose location transmitting devices have been switched off, sometimes in an attempt to evade monitoring, control and surveillance.

The program will provide state-of-the-art satellite data and analysis to small island nations and coastal states around the world where IUU fishing has a major impact on local economies, food security and the health of fish stocks. One major concern for our government is the impact IUU fishing has on food security, where fish resources of vulnerable coastal communities are threatened by the illegal fishing, affecting millions of people.

Identifying “dark” vessels from above will now allow these small island nations to focus their investigations and maximize their enforcement effort to protect their fish stocks.

Program partners include the Forum Fisheries Agency (which represents 15 small island nations in the Pacific region), and the Ecuadorian Maritime Authority, National Directorate of Aquatic Spaces (which is in charge of surveillance and control in the Ecuadorian maritime domain). In December 2020, Canadian and Ecuadorian officials signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize their partnership, and enhance surveillance around the Galapagos Islands – a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Dark Vessel Detection program is part of the $11.6 million in funding for Canada’s commitments to ocean health announced at the 2018 G7 ministerial meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 


“Illegal fishing threatens the health of our fish stocks and takes resources away from hard-working, law-abiding fishers. Through the Dark Vessel Detection program, we’re partnering with other ocean nations to better detect and prevent illegal fishing around the world. We’re investing in one of the leading, most innovative systems on the planet to ensure our fish stocks are protected, our fisheries remain lucrative, and the law is upheld at sea.”

The Honourable Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard

“The Dark Vessel Detection program was made possible by Canada’s strong, collaborative partnership with international partners to address this important challenge. This state-of-the-art system will help Ecuador and small island nations in the Pacific region respond to illegal fishing impacting the Galapagos Islands and the food and economic security of its people. Canada is committed to innovative partnerships to create a sustainable future for all.”

The Honourable The Honourable Marc Garneau, Minister of Foreign Affairs

“The Department of National Defence is well positioned to contribute to these efforts to stop unsanctioned and illegal fishing. Gathering and assessing data using Polar Epsilon 2 ship detection data allows us to contribute to the collaborative efforts of the Dark Vessel Detection program.”

The Honourable Harjit Sajjan, Minister of National Defence

“The exploitation of living marine resources, mainly ichthyological ones by fishing fleets in the high seas areas is becoming a very alarming threat. Ecuador is demonstrating its willingness to make its maritime fishing activities transparent, for that reason it is an active partner with Canada and both nations apply mechanisms to optimize the use of control measures which shows its commitment to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing”.

The Honourable Rear Admiral, Jaime Vela Erazo, National Directorate of Aquatic Spaces, Ecuadorian Maritime Authority

“FFA would like to acknowledge and thank the Government of Canada for its important contribution towards combating IUU in the Pacific. This collaboration will explore what emerging technologies might contribute to the existing surveillance work being done in the Pacific.”

Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen  Director General, Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA)

 “MDA looks forward to working with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to deliver this important project that will help Canada contribute to international efforts aimed at combatting illegal fishing. From their unique vantage point in space, imaging satellites like RADARSAT-2 are a key tool in tackling this global challenge. Canadians should be proud of our country’s deep heritage and leadership in space-based radar satellites and imagery – a capability that makes today’s announcement possible.”

Mike Greenley, Chief Executive Officer, MDA

Quick facts

  • Globally, IUU fishing is a major contributor to declining fish stocks and marine habitat destruction. It is estimated that IUU fishing accounts for about 30 per cent of all fishing activity worldwide, representing up to 26 million tonnes of fish caught annually at a cost to the global economy of more than $23 billion a year. Illegal fishing occurs both on the high seas and within the 200 mile limits of coastal states, which has an especially negative impact on coastal rural populations in vulnerable areas.

  • Earlier this year, Fisheries and Oceans Canada launched a pilot program to track dark vessels internationally, working with the Canadian Space Agency and NGOs to detect dark vessels in the Bahamas and Costa Rica. This work has already led to significant fines to five foreign vessels.

  • Combatting global IUU fishing through international partnerships is a priority identified at the G7 Leaders’ Summit in June 2018 hosted by Canada in Charlevoix, Québec, and at the first Sustainable Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, which Canada co-hosted with Kenya and Japan in November 2018.

  • MDA is a Canadian-owned world leader in geointelligence, satellite systems, and robotics and space operations technology. It developed, owns and operates RADARSAT-2 – a unique public-private partnership with the Government of Canada, and was the prime contractor for the Canadian Space Agency’s RADARSAT Constellation Mission. MDA also provides satellite flight operations and data management services for the Agency’s Earth observation and space situational awareness satellite missions.

Associated links


Jane Deeks
Press Secretary
Office of the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard

Media Relations
Fisheries and Oceans Canada

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