‘Joining the OceanMind crew…from a distance’

Oliver Ashford

Arriving to an eerily-quite office, discussing pandemics, loading up your car with computer equipment, and then driving back home before lunch isn’t typically what a first day in a new position consists of. But then again, these aren’t typical times at present, and OceanMind isn’t your typical organisation.

Born out of a collaboration between the Satellite Applications Catapult and The Pew Charitable Trusts with the aim of fusing remote sensing data and artificial intelligence software to combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, OceanMind launched as an independent not-for-profit organisation in the summer of 2018. Since then, OceanMind has expanded its scope to encompass a broader goal of providing intelligence to empower enforcement and compliance in marine environments. Aided by a partnership with Microsoft as part of its ‘AI for Earth’ program, OceanMind now has active projects in the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic and Southern oceans, and utilises remote sensing data, in-house bespoke machine learning software, and a detailed knowledge of maritime policy and politics to counter illegal activities occurring at sea.

I joined OceanMind on 16th March this year, following two years working as a marine ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. Although my research at Scripps was exciting and intellectually challenging, I was keen to explore opportunities where I could more directly impact the world in a positive way. I decided to make the move to OceanMind with this aim at the forefront of my mind. Still a week before the UK government announced its lockdown measures, OceanMind had proactively taken the decision to move its team to a remote working situation. Beginning a new position remotely can be testing at the best of times; with no opportunities to physically meet colleagues, building and maintaining effective lines of communication can be a challenge, and sustaining key support and training activities requires additional commitment. Thankfully, OceanMind’s technological capabilities, investment in training, and infectiously positive culture have made my transition into a Fisheries Analyst position as smooth as possible under these circumstances. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that an organisation with such expertise in remote sensing technology is able to transition to a remote working environment so seamlessly!

Since starting, I’ve come to understand that the OceanMind team works together somewhat like a ship’s crew. Morning musters ensure that the whole analyst team gathers each day to discuss work plans and updates, the importance of clear communication is promoted above social graces, and the team spirit and sense of investment of the crew in their ‘ship’ is contagious. During my relatively short time at OceanMind so far, my work has been varied and engaging, and I’ve been given the opportunity to contribute to a range of projects; from investigating the activity of ‘dark’ vessels identified in Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery collected over the South China Sea, to searching for electro-optical satellite images of fishing vessels suspected of illegal fishing activities, and forming new partnerships with academic and conservation-focussed organisations whose aims and values align with those of OceanMind.

Success reinforces to all OceanMind crew members the value of their work and drives the organisation to set increasingly ambitious goals. Recently, OceanMind has had important successes following a new partnership with the Costa Rican government. Using remote sensing datasets, OceanMind has assessed the IUU risk posed by large-scale foreign fishing fleets operating within Costa Rica’s national waters. This work has highlighted the frequent avoidance of fishing licence costs by these fleets. Armed with the intelligence and confidence provided by OceanMind, the Costa Rican government has been able to collect licence fees translating to tens of thousands of USD per vessel. This money is being re-invested into the management and protection of the exceptional marine resources of Costa Rica.

It’s been an atypical but exciting start to my time at OceanMind, and I’m looking forward to continuing my voyage!