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Marine and coastal satellite Services to Track Environmental Crime activities

Story by GRID-Arendal March 15th, 2017

Environmental crime is a global threat to the security, economy, environment and sustainable development. Its value is estimated to be ca. 91–258 billion USD annually with a 5-7% annual growth rate, which is 2–3 times the percentage increase of the global economy. Environmental crime is often understood as acts or activities that are in violation of environmental legislation and cause significant harm to the environment and human health. They provide for very high profits for perpetrators and relatively low risks of detection. Profits from the illegal exploitation of natural resources are often funneled into organized criminal and terrorist organizations.

Major environmental crimes by sector. Copyright © Riccardo Pravettoni/RHIPTO 2016.

What is MASTREC?

MASTREC is a collaborative, international project aimed at promoting an innovative use of Earth Observation products as an efficient intelligence and surveillance tool to support effective coordination of law enforcement actions for environmental crime. It uses combined data from Automatic Information Systems (AIS), satellite, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and optical images to detect and report criminal activities in the environmental sphere. This project is funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).



The MASTREC project focuses on the detection of trafficking of illegal rosewood from Madagascar and illegal charcoal from Somalia/Kenya, conducting 2 service trials on each region.

Containers containing rosewood are transported per ship. Photo credit: Toby Smith/EIA
Logging basecamp from which approximately 100 men go out in the Masoala Forest National Park to find rosewood. Photo credit: Toby Smith/EIA

How it works

Satellite radar imagery and the use of AIS can help track vessels and monitor illegal activities. AIS installed on the vessels transmit their position, speed, and destination to shore based users. The satellite radar or optical data shows all ships present in a certain area. When this information is combined, ships with switched-off AIS transmitter or with a deceptive AIS can be traced. When suspicious vessels are spotted, the ship’s information and travelling pattern can be inspected. Furthermore, SAR is not weather or daylight dependent and can be acquired in near real time, allowing detection of non-cooperative vessels. High resolution images can be used for the detection of loading and unloading of illegal cargo.

Two products can be provided:

Products Description
Activity based intelligence reports. Elaborate large scale maps of the maritime traffic flux, acquired over long time series.
Support to operations. Elaborate detection reports over an area of interest. Near real-time (NRT) surveillance within a few hours after image acquisition, with transmission if possible to patrol assets deployed for verification and enforcement. The satellite image acquisitions are anticipated, in conjunction with the predicted range of operation of the patrol assets.
Illustration showing the MASTREC process
Optical image of Tarifa, Southern Spain. The white dots and stripes are vessels that can be observed from the image.

Service evolution

End users are also requesting evolution of the service so it can provide Earth Observation based information to combat illegal activities on land, not restricted to illegal logging crime but also illegal mining and wildlife poaching

Service trail: Charcoal trafficking

One of the service trails focuses on illegal charcoal trafficking. Profits from illegal, illicit or unregulated charcoal trade in the East, Central and West Africa are estimated approximately in the range of 2.4–9 billion USD and may be used for financing other illegal activities, including smuggling of weapons and terrorism. The unregulated trade in charcoal is suggested to lead to a loss of 1.9 billion USD annually for African countries. Figure 8 illustrates the different phases of charcoal trafficking.

Main identified routes of interest for charcoal trafficking lie between Somalia, Kenya and the Gulf States. The first trial steps of this project include the identification of a vessel with a suspicious behavior, based on actual and historical AIS data, followed by the analyses of available satellite imagery and display of vessels with their AIS switched off or tampered. Once these suspicious vessels are determined, a detailed study of their routes is undertaken, which can provide additional information on the loading/unloading and transit areas.

Phases of charcoal trafficking. Copyright © Thirze Hermans/GRID-Arendal
Charcoal is produced by burning wood without oxygen, which can be seen in the back of the photo. In the front the charcoal is stored in bags

Users and stakeholders

MASTREC’s end users are those in the law enforcement sector. In the scope of this project INTERPOL acts as a focal point. Stakeholders include the Worldbank and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Project Partners

MASTREC’s main collaborative partners:

Contact Information

Jean-Yves Lebras, CLS,

Valentin Emelin, GRID-Arendal,