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Hi, everybody. Thanks for being here. Welcome to ocean solutions, a noise lab podcast.
In this podcast, we're going to be digging into some of the massively important, complicated and interconnected issues that are facing Earth's oceans and coasts right now. I'm going to be talking with a wide variety of people. Researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, public officials, and other members of the community whose lives and careers are deeply connected to the ocean and its coasts.
My name is Dr. Morgan Reed, Raven, and I'm a biogeochemist and a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I'm part of both the earth science department and the Marine science program. And I lead the research group here on campus, known as NOISE lab. So this is a science podcast.
But this is also a podcast about humans. We live in a time of unprecedented ecological upheaval. And honestly it can feel like a dark and challenging time to love coral reefs, kelp forests, Arctic ecosystems, and Marine animals from whales to microbes.
So, what do we do? How can we create a better understanding of how the ocean works? while, also looking for practical, meaningful solutions to the enormous challenges we face as a planet and a civilization. So my guests on this podcast are all inspirations to me. They illustrate the incredible diversity of ways to work on ocean related problems and to make a real impact on human and environmental issues.
My first goal is to highlight how science informs and is informed by many spheres of society working together to solve these problems.
And my second goal is to reveal just a few of the opportunities that exist to get involved with ocean conservation and climate mitigation. Possible majors for students, careers or other actions that can represent something we and our fellow humans. So desperately need: Solutions.
Morgan Raven: [00:02:29] Our first guest on this podcast epitomizes the intersection of ocean data science and human rights here with me is Gavin McDonalds, a project researcher at the Bren school here at the CSB campus. Hi, Gavin.
Gavin McDonald: [00:02:41] Hi there. Thank you so much for having me.
Morgan Raven: [00:02:44] I'm really excited you could join us today. so I've invited you in part to be our very first guest because you were working on an incredibly compelling problem. And it's one that I wasn't really aware of until relatively recently. So could we just start off by having you tell us a little bit about the big issue that you've been working on?
Gavin McDonald: [00:03:03] Of course. Yeah. so a lot of us, eat seafood as a regular part of our diet. And, many of us also know that seafood is caught, all over the world. so many forms of seafood are actually global commodity. so if you think of something like tuna, this is caught in basically all of the oceans of the ocean.
Um, now something we think a little bit less about is who's actually catching those fish. And what are the conditions like for the workers on board those vessels? Um, now a couple of years ago, maybe about five, six years ago, some really, high level reports started coming out about abusive working conditions on some of these fishing vessels.
And particularly, there were reports of forced labor on board, certain fishing vessels. and this is really a type of, of modern day slavery, where essentially fishers are brought onto fishing boats and, they help, these, these vessels fish out on the high seas, but really our, our, our form of slave.
Morgan Raven: [00:04:05] are they getting captured some point and then just not being let off?
Gavin McDonald: [00:04:09] So often what's happening is, is they come onto the ships willingly under certain assumptions about what their working conditions are going to be like and how often they're going to be paid and how often they're going to be able to visit, ports and come back and see their families. But they're really, they're really trapped.
they're oftentimes they don't understand the language of the vessel they're being brought on to. and so they oftentimes just get, get into situations that they were, that they did not sign up for.
Morgan Raven: [00:04:39] So, I mean, how many people are we talking about here? How widespread is this problem?
Gavin McDonald: [00:04:44] That's a great question. And, uh, so we're, we're actively working on research right now to try to answer that, uh, previously there really wasn't a good estimate of how many people, how many boats we were talking about. but we're, we're currently doing some research where we're actually trying to quantify the extent of the problem for the first time.
our results are still preliminary, but I will say we're talking about thousands of vessels at least. I'm with tens of thousands of potential victims of forced labor working on those festivals.
Morgan Raven: [00:05:13] Tens of thousands of people. That just seems huge.
Gavin McDonald: [00:05:19] Yeah. I mean, it's a surprising, finding, but, but the more you read about it, the more you hear that it's a very pervasive problem.
Morgan Raven: [00:05:29] Wow. So you said that this kind of got some attention for the first time, or at least more attention, maybe five or six years ago. Is that because this is a relatively new issue or just because we're seeing it for the first time?
Gavin McDonald: [00:05:42] I think it's a combination of both. I think there was some really, really good investigative journalism that really brought the issue to the public attention. a lot of work by the New York times and the associated press, they actually won a Pulitzer prize for their coverage of the issue. so I think there was some fantastic investigative journalism that, that started bringing this to the forefront of the public attention.
and I think. You know, following those reports, a number of NGOs have also started getting involved in the problem and I've also started releasing their own reports. And so I think more and more people are becoming aware of this problem. And it's the kind of thing where once you're aware of it, you almost have to find out more, you kind of feel obliged to, to try to shed a light on it.
So more and more people are shedding light on the problem from different angles.
Morgan Raven: [00:06:28] Wow. So are there particular groups of people that tend to end up in this situation enslaved on these ships?
Gavin McDonald: [00:06:37] Yes. So typically the people that are ending up in slaved are marginalized in one way or another. a big source of these people is often from, from migrant communities, uh, that are basically, refugees from their own countries and seeking work in other places. So for example, might be a refugees from me and my seeking work in other countries in Asia.
yeah. And so often these people will, will go to these other things, countries, seeking work, often get involved with a recruitment agency which connects, individuals with, uh places of work. And they'll, they'll get involved in these situations. They don't really know what they're getting involved in.
Um, so really they often don't even speak the local language. So they may be signing paperwork that they don't fully understand, and they end up on fishing boats. and often what happens is, is they, these boats leave the port and they may not be back for months, if not years at a time, and really not knowing what's going on.
and not really having the way to communicate or get off the boat.
Morgan Raven: [00:07:41] Wow. And you're in the middle of the ocean. There's no jurisdiction out there. No, one's really in charge. And it sounds like you don't have any national government. Who's really going to go to bat for you. You've Been marginalized as you've moved around the world, your original country was something you had to flee for a reason.
You've ended up in another country that doesn't consider you a citizen. And then you end up on a contract on a ship in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Mmm, that sounds terrible. so it seems to me, I might guess that these same ships that are following these horrific labor practices would also be bad actors in other ways, like related to conservation and over fishing.
Is this a related issue or are they totally separate?
Gavin McDonald: [00:08:26] Yeah, that's a great question. So a narrative you hear quite often is that many fisheries are indeed overfished and it's becoming harder and harder to catch fish. and when it's harder to catch fish, when there's less efficient water, it's, it's more expensive. You have to travel further distances to find them.
it just costs more money to catch the same amount of fish. One way that I'm a vessel or a company operating a vessel compensate for this increased cost would be to lower what they're paying their crew or to not pay them at all. And so common narrative you hear is that in a fishery where it's been experiencing over fishing, it's getting more and more expensive and a way to compensate for those, those costs are to, are to, to employ forced labor.
And so it, it certainly seems like a plausible narrative. Now this hasn't been quantified or proven yet, but it certainly seems like there is a link between conservation and this practice. I'll also say something else we hear quite often, again, that hasn't been, proven, but it's certainly something you hear a lot is that these boats that are.
Including forced labor. They're doing other things that they shouldn't be doing. they're, they're often fishing in places. They shouldn't be fishing. whether that's in a Marine protected area or in another country's waters where they don't have authorization, they're often things they're not supposed to catch.
You hear a lot about shark finning happening on some of these boats. and so certainly it's oftentimes it seems like it may be a case of bad actors just doing bad things all around.
Morgan Raven: [00:09:57] Got it. But it seems like that could also explain why this would get worse over time. Is. Some of these shifts may be wanted to go sharp printing from the beginning, but it sounds like maybe there's also a push out a piece desirable fishing zones that are sort of they can no longer follow the practices they did before. And now they're faced with this choice of having to go further and not being able to turn a profit.
Gavin McDonald: [00:10:21] That's absolutely right. Yeah. And I think as, as more of these vessels are using forced labor and they can operate more cheaply. it, it allows them to fish more and more, and that could feed negatively back into the whole, um, the whole status of the fishery and the conservation status.
Morgan Raven: [00:10:36] Wow. Okay. So how does this actually work? How do you, how do you take a ship out into the middle of the Pacific and stay there for years and not go to port? How did you do need food and to get the fish off? Right? How does this, how does this work?
Gavin McDonald: [00:10:52] So essentially there's a practice that's called trans shipment. And so what this does is it allows a fishing boat to stay out at sea for basically an indefinite period of time. So here's how it works. So a fishing boat typically might think of a fishing boat is going out to sea. Uh, fishing around for awhile and then coming back to court and offloading its catch that's how many fisheries operating, but an alternative is that rather than coming back to port to offload your catch, you can offload your catch onto another vessel.
These are often large refrigerated vessels that can, that can handle fresh fish. And then it's those vessels that go back to port and offload the catch
Morgan Raven: [00:11:33] Wow. So you could really get stuck out there
Gavin McDonald: [00:11:36] You
Morgan Raven: [00:11:36] and get stuck out there.
That ship could stay there forever, theoretically, and someone's bringing it diesel and taking away fish and you're just trapped.
Gavin McDonald: [00:11:45] Exactly. Yeah. There's, there's certain types of boats bringing fuel and other supplies to the ships. There's other boats, um, bringing, bringing the fish back to port. So it's, it's theoretically possible for a fishing vessel to stay at sea for an indefinite period of time.
Morgan Raven: [00:12:00] wow. So, so what are you going to do about this? What is your approach?
Gavin McDonald: [00:12:05] Yeah. So when we started thinking about the problem, we are. Wondering if, is there a way to, to identify vessels that might be at high risk of, of doing this activity? And we just mentioned some of the behaviors that these boats do, things like staying out at sea for long periods of time, transshipping with other vessels, fishing on the high seas or fishing illegally in another countries, waters.
These are all things that we thought we might actually be able to observe using satellites.
Morgan Raven: [00:12:34] Cool.
Gavin McDonald: [00:12:36] our approach was to use a satellite vessel monitoring data to try to identify vessels that look like they might be using forced labor using some of these very same behaviors that we were just talking about.
Morgan Raven: [00:12:49] Fascinating. So wait, how do you actually see the ships? Are you looking at them visually or what.
Gavin McDonald: [00:12:55] Good question. Yeah, so many large scale vessels, both fishing vessels and otherwise carry what's called the automatic identification system, AIS. this is a system it's basically a vessel monitoring system that traditionally is used for safety at sea. It's a way of boats to avoid colliding with each other, essentially.
But what's really neat is satellites can pick up the signals of these AIS devices. and, and basically say where all these vessels are, operating at any given time. basically in near real time. So we've teamed up with an organization called global fishing watch that takes all this satellite data, all of this vessel monitoring data, run some really, really cool processing on it.
And can actually tell you which of these boats is a fishing boat and can even tell you when they're actually fishing. And so by having this level of information, we can actually start to look at some of these behaviors we were just talking about by using this vessel monitoring information.
Morgan Raven: [00:13:58] that's really interesting. So, okay. So let's say you identify some ships and you're like, there's no way these guys are following rules. They've been sitting out here in this protected zone for a long time. We see trans shipment occurring. Then what, what is the next step to actually enforce some of these labor laws or practices?
What can we do about it?
Gavin McDonald: [00:14:19] Yeah. So this is really where it takes partnerships to make, the best use of this information. so one natural Avenue for how this information could be used would be to team up with an enforcement agency, that is tasked to enforce, some particular policy or law. now there are international policies regarding, forced labor.
Uh, it is an international crime and it is something that, that, different countries can respond to. And so one potential, Avenue is to team up with enforcement agencies and give them information on which vessels are high risk. Um, now this can be really valuable because it's costly for enforcement agencies to do inspections of vessels.
and often they don't even know which vessels they should be targeting. and so one potential avenue for them. This information is to help them do more targeted interventions, help them be more efficient in how they allocate their resources.
Morgan Raven: [00:15:13] Yeah, absolutely. one note though, these shifts that aren't following the rules on conservation, and they're not following the rules on labor practices, they still have these beacons. Why do they do that?
Gavin McDonald: [00:15:26] That's a good question. That is something we don't really know. they still have these beacons. you can see them oftentimes fishing places. They're definitely not supposed to fish. Yeah, we haven't quite figured that one out.
Morgan Raven: [00:15:39] I suppose no one wants to run into another ship in the middle of the night. That's
Gavin McDonald: [00:15:43] That is also true.
Morgan Raven: [00:15:44] a near term problem for everybody. Um, that's really interesting though. Wow. Okay. So you guys are about to publish a paper on this research, right. And so what exactly, what exactly is in that paper? what would you like people to take away as the big message of that publication?
Gavin McDonald: [00:16:03] Yeah, I guess. So one of the first things we're doing with the papers really I'm shedding a light on the extent of the problem. I think, with all of the reports coming out, I think we all have an intuitive sense that it's a big problem. We really didn't know how big, Where are these vessels fishing? which fleets are they in?
Which fishing flags are they using? Um, what courts are they using? this is all information we really didn't have before. and now for the first time we really have a sense of the extent of the problem. So I think that's, that's one thing.
Morgan_Raven: [00:16:38] Is this really localized in one part of the world? Or is this something that's happening everywhere?
Gavin_McDonald: [00:16:44] That's a great question. so a lot of the reports that have come out, a lot of the publicly available information is focused in, in Asia. That is a lot of what we're reading about. but through our analysis, we found that it's, it's certainly not. Limited to Asia. we see these, boats, not only fishing in oceans throughout the world.
but they're actually visiting ports in countries throughout the world. and so this is, not a problem that's that's in any one place. It really is a global problem.
Morgan Raven: [00:17:13] And does that mean that there is an opportunity maybe when ships that are flagged as potentially bad actors try to come into a port where there is maybe more director, active enforcement of these things. Would that be an opportunity to intercept some of these shifts?
Gavin McDonald: [00:17:28] That absolutely would be. Yeah. And there's a really important international policy called the port state measures agreement, that this sort of information could tap into, where certain ports, certain countries. have the authority to board vessels that that may be conducting illegal activities.
And so that certainly could be an opportunity to inspect some of these vessels and, and hopefully, combat the problem.
Morgan Raven: [00:17:51] so this really sounds like a lot of a team effort. You've mentioned global fishing watch, right? You've mentioned these enforcement agencies. Is there anybody else who's been working on this problem historically that you'd like to mention.
Gavin McDonald: [00:18:02] Yeah, absolutely. yeah, there's a whole group of organizations that have been tackling this problem from different angles. So one of the groups we teamed up with is a group called Liberty chaired and they work on all sorts of, issues relating to, , Conservation and, human trafficking. So not just fisheries, but also wildlife trafficking as well.
and so one of their approaches is to really, Get information about, cases of human trafficking and share that with corporations and with banks who are actually obliged to act on information they receive. and so that's, that's one angle that they've been taking is to actually, work with banks and corporations to really get this information to them.
So they can actually, take actions against, for example, people that might be, taking loans from them.
Morgan Raven: [00:18:49] Yeah, that seems really important. Um, from the consumer perspective, are there actions that you see happening on the grassroots level or something that a non NGO non-government agency can do to deal with this?
Gavin McDonald: [00:19:04] Yeah, absolutely. So that's another really interesting angle we haven't talked about at all yet. so one example of this is a group called the seafood slavery risk tool. this is actually an initiative, Put together by the Monterey Bay aquarium, who also makes, the seafood watch program, as well as Liberty shared, who I just mentioned and the sustainable fisheries partnership. it's a similar idea to the seafood watch program that gives, particular seafood, products, kind of green, red, yellow label. Should I buy this or should I not buy this? If I see it in the store? So you're trying to do something similar except with slavery. And so they're working to, help identify which specific seafood products may or may not be, uh, subject to this kind of human rights abuse.
Morgan Raven: [00:19:47] Yeah. So are they envisioning maybe a, a sticker or a badge that you could see on your seafood? And you'd be like, great. I have dolphin safe and slavery free tuna products.
Gavin McDonald: [00:20:00] I think we could certainly see you have envisioned something like that in the future. And I think that's really where some of this will eventually end up in the hands of the consumers. You know, we have a choice when we buy seafood at the market of what we buy. And if we have that, that sort of information, when we're buying seafood, we might make a different choice.
And if we all collectively decide to stop buying seafood products that are made in this way, we can really make a difference.
Morgan Raven: [00:20:28] that's really exciting. that approach, right? Consumer focused solutions, that's bigger than just this project, right? That's a general theme of the research group at Bren the group that you're in.
Gavin McDonald: [00:20:39] Yeah. So I work at the environmental market solutions lab, which is at the Bren school of environmental science and management and that's exactly right. So we think all about how market based solutions can help solve some of the most pressing environmental challenges. We just talked about one here, but another one is like seafood watch.
So that's, more on the sustainability side of things. So that is a way of getting information into the hands of consumers. So that they can, exert their own kind of market control on the situation. And so market based solutions are all about aligning incentives. And if we get information into the hands of consumers and they change their buying preferences, this can really exert influence on how fish are caught.
whether they're caught sustainably, whether they're caught with or without, human rights abuses on board. And so our group is all about finding these sort of solutions where incentives can be aligned.
Morgan Raven: [00:21:35] Fantastic. Very cool. So let's talk, let's talk a little about what your role is in the group and what your job is and what your normal days are like. So would you consider yourself an environmental data scientist? Is that the words you would use or is there a better phrase?
Gavin McDonald: [00:21:52] Yeah, I think that's a great word for it. I mean, so really my day to day job is often in front of a computer. And really it's all about taking data, which we have a massive amount of these days, especially with, with satellites now and making sense of it and helping use those data to help inform a better management.
and a lot of the focus of my work is on fisheries management, but it's not, not limited to that. Um, and so, yeah, I'd say it's incredibly powerful what we can do nowadays, in terms of taking data and making more informed decisions with those data.
Morgan Raven: [00:22:28] are you mostly looking at the data directly or are you mostly like coding algorithms that parse the data and give you larger trends?
Gavin McDonald: [00:22:37] It's a little bit of both. Uh, nowadays with satellite data, it's almost impossible to look at all of the data directly. Um, I mean, we're talking about. You know, millions and millions of data points. There's no way one person could wrap their head around all of them. So a lot of what we do is, is yeah, exactly what you say is right.
Code and computer algorithms that can basically parse all of this massive amount of data and make it into simple trends that we can comprehend with her, with her minds.
Morgan Raven: [00:23:06] Got it. I like simple trends that I can comprehend with my mind. Those are my favorite trends. Yeah.
Okay. So most of your time, it sounds like is spent from the computer. Clearly you do some writing because you have these papers coming out as well. Right. Do you get to do a lot of outreach or talking with outside groups as well as part of your day?
Gavin McDonald: [00:23:29] Yeah, I'd say that's the other major component, for really, I'd say. Tackling any environmental problem. It requires partnerships. It requires an interdisciplinary approach. and so, you know, myself as environmental data scientists, I can look at the data and look at some trends on my computer, but it really needs.
eyes of another person, a person that's really familiar with the problem to help make sense of what those trends mean. And this is where our partnerships with other groups like Liberty shared really come into play. We need to talk with people that really are familiar with these issues intimately, so they can help us make sense of the data.
Morgan Raven: [00:24:07] Yeah. So what is your background actually? How did you get into this?
Gavin McDonald: [00:24:12] Yeah. So I actually started my career as a mechanical engineer, in, uh, high school. And before I was always really, really interested in math and science. And at the time, I, I didn't even know about environmental science as a potential career avenue. Um, so engineering seemed like a very natural fit for you for someone that liked math and science.
And so I went into that, and I did enjoy it. it was very, very interesting. And actually my first job was working as a research engineer at a satellite company. So it was a company that was, actually designing the thrusters of satellites to move them around in space. and yeah, it was really neat jobs.
So I got to play around with satellites But But I decided that didn't feel like quite enough for me. it was, I think, stimulating and fun, but I really wanted to do something more. I really have always had a passion for the environment and it was around this time that I started thinking, well, okay, maybe I could combine my love of math and science with actually helping the environment. And you satellites along the way. Um, so I actually left that job and came to the Bren school and did a master's degree of environmental science and management here at UC SB. Uh, and now I'm on the flip side of those satellites and actually get to use some of the data that they're collecting, to help solve environmental problems.
Morgan Raven: [00:25:28] And such an important issue to be working on. It really connects all of these pieces, the engineering, the science, the data algorithms and these huge human issues. That's really fascinating. So what does happen next? What is the future plan for this research?
Gavin McDonald: [00:25:45] Yeah. So we're, we're looking at a number of different avenues of, of where we go next with this. so like I mentioned before, one potential avenues, , teaming up with enforcement agencies. And so we actually have some of these in the works that might actually be able to use our information to do more targeted, inspections. We also hope to team up with some potentially some foreign governments that might actually be able to do some inspection in their, in their ports. And so I think really, really what we do now now is we've, we've done this proof of concept. We've shown that satellites can, can identify vessels that are high risk of forced labor.
And really where we're going now is let's get that information to the hands of the people that can use it most. let's get them out there and make their jobs easier. And I think really along the way, let's also make our proof of concept better as these enforcement agencies and countries are doing inspections.
Um, maybe sometimes you're going to get it right and maybe sometimes are not. And what we hope to do is feed all that information back into our algorithms to hopefully make them better and better over time.
Morgan Raven: [00:26:50] Yeah, for example, you had to know about trans shipment in order to be able to know, to even look for that in your data.
Gavin McDonald: [00:26:57] Absolutely. Yeah. And I'd say, you know, one of the challenging things with, with monitoring criminal behavior, like this is criminals are adaptive. They change over time and we've shown they do a certain thing up til now, but they may do something different a year, five years from now. And we want to be able to stay up to date with those trends.
And the only way to do that is to work with these groups that are seeing things on the water and constantly update and improve things over time.
Morgan Raven: [00:27:23] Yeah, okay. if somebody is listening to this right now and they're thinking that is so cool, I want to do that. I could do that. I would love to contribute on an issue like this, and I would love to work with satellite data and try to parse it into a useful format for human needs.
What would you say to that person? What advice would you like to give them?
Gavin McDonald: [00:27:47] Yeah. I mean, I would say there's. You know, if this is an issue you care about and you want to get involved with there's different avenues of doing that. so you could take a path like myself as an environmental data scientist, and really look at this from the data side of things. And so for that type of individual, I certainly recommend, you know, focus on your math and science.
if you have opportunities to take data science classes, which really wasn't a thing when I was going to school, Take advantage of that. that'll be directly applicable to this line of work. So if you find yourself gravitating towards math and science, you know, data science is a great way to get into this.
but if that's maybe not, your thing also opportunities for policy, more, oriented folks. you know, this is a, an issue that's ultimately gonna take, Domestic and international policy to really solve. And so if maybe the data science side of things is in your interest, policy work is certainly needed as well.
Morgan Raven: [00:28:39] Well, and it sounds like no matter which side you were to take a data science or a policy approach, knowing about the other side, if you're a policy maker, to be aware that these tools exist, that you can get some actual data about how prevalent these problems are.
Maybe even some tools to target your resources would be a really important thing to know about. And vice versa. Clearly you can't implement your solutions without help on the policy side.
Gavin McDonald: [00:29:03] That's absolutely right. I think it takes us all to work together on something like this.
Morgan Raven: [00:29:09] Great. Well, thank you so much, Gavin, for being here, this was really fascinating to learn about. Um, and I for one have really expanded my perspective about what goes into the seafood. And I would love to see some sort of rating system that would let me know that this wasn't in my cat food. so I really hope that that becomes a thing in the near future. And thank you for all of your work on it. Yeah.
Gavin McDonald: [00:29:34] Yeah, no. And thank you for doing this podcast. This has been super fun. Yeah.
Morgan Raven: [00:29:38] It has been fun!
Gavin McDonald: [00:29:39] Awesome.
Morgan Raven: [00:29:41] Thank you so much for your time and expertise this morning. Gavin,
Gavin McDonald: [00:29:44] You're welcome.
Thank you all so much for listening. I want to make sure I give special thanks to Eleanor Duran for all of her help in pulling this together and also to dust on the radio for our theme song. One way trip to Mars. Next week, we're going to be talking about solving ocean problems with Dr Isabel Houghton, who has a startup company who- get this- is building teeny tiny robotic sensors and drone submarines. that tell us all sorts of important things about waves. See you then.