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Mapping Global Fishing Activity for Anyone to See

When it comes to ocean conservation, these seem to be somewhat optimistic times. The oceans are under a greater threat than ever before, but we have been lucky to see a number of ocean-related successes in recent years. There is an increased understanding by the general public about seafood sustainability and the impact of overfishing. Influential celebrities and entrepreneurs have become outspoken ocean advocates and directed a large amounts of attention and funding towards ocean issues. Governments all across the world are starting to grant protection to substantial areas of their territorial waters to create marine reserves. Additionally, the tools available to conservationists and decision-makers have recently gone under a huge boost in capabilities as a result of recent technological innovation. This last area, and the focus of my work, is a critical component to protection of these newly established marine reserves. The methods that we traditionally relied upon can no longer meet these protection needs, so there currently exists a massive demand for new tools and fresh ideas.

One of those new tools was recently unveiled at the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia. Google, Skytruth, and Oceana have teamed up to develop the Global Fishing Watch. The platform seeks to provide a method to monitor, visualize, track, and share information about ocean fishing activity. Google’s Ocean and Earth Outreach team brings the engineering expertise around managing big data and necessary computing capacity to store and make sense of all that data. SkyTruth, a small non-profit whose expertise is in using remote sensing technologies to map environmentally sensitive activities, developed the software and worked with Analyze Corp to develop heuristic algorithms to identify fishing activity. Oceana, the marine conservation advocacy group, is currently using the tool internally to track some blacklisted illegal fishing vessels and is leading the effort to secure the funding to make this available for anyone with an internet connection.

The prototype system makes use of Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking data, which includes vessel information, GPS position, course, and speed. These systems are used primarily for collision avoidance and safety of life at sea. The International Maritime Organization requires AIS to be installed on international ships with a gross tonnage of 300 or more, which includes the largest fishing vessels. The signals from these systems can be collected from shore-based receivers or, in this case, from satellites. SpaceQuest collects the data from four satellites in orbit that continuously pick up these AIS data packets, coming from cargo vessels, yachts, fishing vessels, warships, and anything else that meets to requirement of using that sort of system. The prototype version started with 3.7 billion data points over the course of two years (2012-2013). This resulted in a terabyte of data that included the vessel tracks from 111,374 vessels. After processing this data through the model developed for Global Fishing Watch, the data was reduced to 300 million AIS data points for over 25,000 vessels. On further analysis, the team believed that fishing activity could be verified for 35 million of those data points on 3,125 vessels. Thankfully the work that was done by Skytruth and Google allows all that information to be beautifully displayed on a web browser as can be seen in the video.

Access to this sort of information is is a critical part of watching over our oceans. If you look at what was previously available regarding fishing activity in our oceans, it would be a stretch to call it lacking. There is some information collected by governments and Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (through VMS or equivalent systems), but that data is inherently closed and unavailable to the public. While AIS doesn’t cover all vessels, it does cover some of the biggest. We also need uncooperative methods of tracking, to catch those vessels in the “dark fleet,” who are not required to use AIS or shut off the systems when entering restricted zones. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization puts the number of decked commercial fishing vessels at over 1.3 million, so that could end up being a lot of “dark vessels.”

The Global Fishing Watch prototype looks to be a great tool, and a strong step in the right direction when it comes to ocean information. SkyTruth president and founder John Amos said it best: “So much of what happens out on the high seas is invisible, and that has been a huge barrier to understanding and showing the world what’s at stake for the ocean. But now, satellite data is allowing us to make human interaction with the ocean more transparent than ever before. Fishermen can show how they are doing their part to fish sustainably, we can motivate citizens to watch the places they care about, and we can all work together to restore a thriving ocean.”

Getting this information about what is happening in our oceans is a key part to protecting them. Studies have shown that much of the most commercially successful fish stocks have been overfished or are in danger of being overfished. Over a third of all seafood that enters the United States has been estimated to be illegally caught. This global illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing has been estimated at 11 to 26 million tons of fish caught each year and $10 to $23 billion in economic losses for countries and local communities. We can change this outcome through innovative methods like this. We need the new tools and fresh ideas to help us reverse the impact we have had on our oceans.