In a follow-up to the announcement of the New England Aquarium as a Grand Prize winner of the USAID Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge for their smart invoicing technology project, watch this interview with Dr. Andrew Rhyne of the New England Aquarium and Roger Williams University.
AquariumTradeData.org, a public facing resource stemming from the work of Dr. Rhyne and Dr. Michael Tlusty, a project of the New England Aquarium and Roger Williams University, has quickly become a valuable resource. It is just one example of how Tlusty & Rhyne’s technology have been leveraged to bring newfound transparency and data to discussions of the aquarium trade.
We’re excited to see how winning this award may help advance the underlying project and the ultimate goals that Dr. Rhyne describes in his interview. We’ve also taken the time to transcribe the video, which you can read below.
The illicit wildlife trade is hidden in plain sight in our ports within legally documented shipments…
…because there is no system to analyze shipments at the “species per box” level or in real-time.
Port inspectors must manually assess shipping invoices for illegal content, hindering the ability to monitor wildlife crimes.
Dr. Andrew Rhyne: “My name is Andrew Rhyne and I’m with the New England Aquarium and Roger Williams University. Our innovation is a platform to be able to capture shipping documents as they come into port authorities. That information is captured and it’s digitized, and then it’s analyzed for probability of illegal shipments, and so we’re able to give wildlife inspectors a tool to be able to look at shipments to determine what is in those shipments at a lot faster rate.
“Wildlife shipments: currently the documents that are associated with those are all on paper, and wildlife inspectors have to look through these paper documents to determine what is in the shipments and what is legal and what could be illegal (also, if the species are correctly identified, and if they’re actually from the countries they say they are from). So our solution is able to take a look at this information digitally, capture that, run it through some databases, and actually do a lot of that analysis for the agents.
“We’ve been really interested in looking at the trade in aquarium species for many years, and about seven years ago we embarked on a process to look at what’s coming into the United States for marine aquarium fish. So most people would probably assume that the governments understand what they’re either shipping out of their country or receiving into their country. In our case, what the government knows is they know that marine tropical fish, or freshwater, are coming into the country. But they actually don’t know anything about the species that are coming into the country, so none of that information is actually cataloged, unless the species is either on the endangered species list or is a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) listed species, and most of the species in the aquarium trade are neither of those. And so it makes it really impossible to know what’s coming in.
“So we started by answering that question: what is coming into the United States, and how much, and where is it coming from?
“To get to that answer, we had to develop a lot of technology, and part of that technology is what we want to deploy here to be able to help inspectors look at this information in a more interactive digital way. We’ve got software developed for use to collect and monitor trade, and we need to be able to innovate past that, develop software that can predict and analyze shipments for potential fraud or potential illegal trade. That’s going to require some additional support with what’s called ‘computer vision’ that allows us to actually look at these documents. It’s going to require us to bring in some support on the analytical side to look at developing some of these algorithms for detecting illegal trade. The end user is the agent right now who has to sort through papers and manually identify those species. We want to develop a product that makes them a lot more efficient at their jobs, but that requires quite a level of agency support. In the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife [Service] is the agency that is tasked for receiving those incoming wildlife shipments, and so that’s our target audience.
“My background really as an aquarist and a scientist, it really comes from the fact that I had a fish tank when I was four years old. I spent a lot of time fishing with my dad when I was younger, and that’s where I fell in love with the ocean. So I have a personal connection—I still remember my first fish. If you ask a group of scientists, or anybody really, if they had a fish tank—a lot of people have had fish tanks.
“We were just at the Smithsonian, at the Ocean Hall, yesterday, and just about every kid and family that came up to that—their new word for the Blue Tang is ‘Dory’ and their word for Clownfish is ‘Nemo.’ There is so much good that can come from having a fish tank. We like to say it’s a gateway to science. It can be a real source of learning and a real educational opportunity. But it also can be a disruptive force or destructive force, and so there’s this kind of dichotomy between the two and I think that’s really important to talk about. And that’s why we’re so invested in this, is because at the New England Aquarium, we have a mission to educate the public and conserve the ocean, and our motto is ‘Protecting the Blue Planet.’ That’s what we like to live up to, and I think we’re very much a part of that solution.
“My name’s Andrew Rhyne, and I innovate to save wildlife.”
Together, we can build a future without wildlife crime. For more information, or to support the New England Aquarium, please contact us:
Reef to Rainforest Media, LLC is the publisher of award-winning magazines and books in the fields of aquarium keeping, aquatics, and marine science. It is the English-language publisher of CORAL Magazine and is based in Shelburne, Vermont, USA.