Global Fishing Watch: Tracking the World’s Fishing Footprint

Recently, a report was published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science called “Tracking the global footprint of fisheries”. A group of researchers consisting in part of Global Fishing Watch, SkyTruth, and Google, have disseminated an incredibly vast amount data collected by commercial fishing vessels globally. For the first time, the activity on the world’s ocean can be tracked and analyzed using computer-generated data in real time. The potential of this technology is nearly limitless and can provide the world with answers to questions that were previously impossible to consider.

The key to this breakthrough lies in decades-old transponder technology called the Automatic Identification System (AIS). These devices broadcast information regarding a ship’s position, course, and speed to give a reliable view of oceanic traffic, as well as give location in the event of an emergency. The US Coast Guard mandated these devices be outfitted on all commercial vessels operating in US waters in 2003, with the rest of the world enacting similar rulings by 2013. Tracked and collected by satellites, this data is openly available to the public.

The Global Fishery Watch group has collected AIS data from 2012 to the present and disseminated the information by training Google computers to determine when, where, and how long fishing events are taking place through machine learning algorithms. Using broadcasts and movement patterns characteristic of fishing techniques from 70,000 different vessels, the team was able to conclude which ships were fishing vessels, as opposed to freighters, tugboats, and cruise ships further improving the algorithms. From that point, it was a matter of teaching the computer to make these determinations on its own, and they had created an open-source and widely available tool for viewing global fishing events.

The initial publication, released in the February 2018 issue of Science Magazine, makes some very astounding observations. The research shows that over 55% of the world’s oceans are currently being industrially exploited by commercial fishing vessels. To put that in perspective, this footprint is over four times as large as the amount of land currently utilized in traditional agriculture. The study also revealed the vast amount of time that each nation expended in fishing efforts, both in their dedicated economic zones and on open waters. China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea account for 85% of the fishing on the high seas, areas much less closely monitored than coastal waters that fall under government jurisdiction.

The key to this breakthrough lies in decades-old transponder technology called the Automatic Identification System (AIS). These devices broadcast information regarding a ship’s position, course, and speed to give a reliable view of oceanic traffic, as well as give location in the event of an emergency. The US Coast Guard mandated these devices be outfitted on all commercial vessels operating in US waters in 2003, with the rest of the world enacting similar rulings by 2013. Tracked and collected by satellites, this data is openly available to the public.

The Global Fishery Watch group has collected AIS data from 2012 to the present and disseminated the information by training Google computers to determine when, where, and how long fishing events are taking place through machine learning algorithms. Using broadcasts and movement patterns characteristic of fishing techniques from 70,000 different vessels, the team was able to conclude which ships were fishing vessels, as opposed to freighters, tugboats, and cruise ships further improving the algorithms. From that point, it was a matter of teaching the computer to make these determinations on its own, and they had created an open-source and widely available tool for viewing global fishing events.

The initial publication, released in the February 2018 issue of Science Magazine, makes some very astounding observations. The research shows that over 55% of the world’s oceans are currently being industrially exploited by commercial fishing vessels. To put that in perspective, this footprint is over four times as large as the amount of land currently utilized in traditional agriculture. The study also revealed the vast amount of time that each nation expended in fishing efforts, both in their dedicated economic zones and on open waters. China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea account for 85% of the fishing on the high seas, areas much less closely monitored than coastal waters that fall under government jurisdiction.

Because fishing is an industrial activity tied to politics and culture, this is actually a positive message because it shows we have a lot of human agency in the way we fish the oceans, and it's entirely within our power to change things.

 -- David Kroodsma of Global Fishing Watch, BBC News

This publication is only a small portion of the insight this technology can provide. Because the tracker data is universally available, and the map assets are open source, this allows it to be used by virtually any one with a computer and internet connection. Smaller and less developed nations now have the means to monitor their fisheries in a manner that would have previously been outside of their infrastructure. The increased transparency this technology affords will ultimately allow developing nations to monitor and access fishery regulations and combat destructive illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which the Food and Agricuture Organization of the United Nations lists as a key challenge to the sustainability of the fisheries sector and food security. The FAO further states that “Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing remains one of the greatest threats to marine ecosystems due to its potent ability to undermine national and regional efforts to manage fisheries sustainably as well as endeavors to conserve marine biodiversity.” The US Intelligence Council said that some studies showed that IUU fishing accounted from 15 to as high as 30% of the total global catch. The Global Fish Watch hopes that this technology can help hold these parties accountable, and in some cases have already began to as in evidence of the recovery of fisheries in Indonesia and Peru.

While this increased transparency has the potential to reduce IUU fishing, it also has the ability to help consumers make better, and now more informed, decisions when purchasing seafood. According to the FAO, fish is easily the most consumed meat protein worldwide. It is becoming more difficult for the consumer to ensure they are purchasing responsibly harvested product or even to be guaranteed as to the validity of what they have purchased. Reports indicate that 1 in 5 samples of seafood worldwide has been mislabeled as a different fish.

"Once you have these tools, people that buy fish can start making certain demands to ensure the legality of the catch they’re buying," said Oceana’s Senior Scientist Dr. Kim Warner. Often times, little is known about the specifics of our seafood by the time it reaches our plate – where and how it was caught, who caught it, and even what type of species it is."

There have been a few dissenting remarks regarding the results in the publication. Some scientists say that the resolution available from the satellite transponder information is still too low, and a single fishing event in a small area will mark a much larger area as being fished. This would possibly reduce the percentage of the world’s activity on the oceans by some margin. Additionally, the AIS transponders are only required on commercial vessels of a certain size. Smaller vessels would still be able to fish unreported and unseen. Regardless, it cannot be denied that this technology heralds immense potential in improving sustainability efforts in one of the world’s most precious resources.

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