Seafood from both wild and farmed sources, accounts for nearly $150 billion in global trade per year. Of that, between $10 billion and $23.5 billion worth of catch is estimated to have come from Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. In recent years, governments, fisheries authorities and conservation groups have been making real progress in the fight to reduce IUU fishing and to conserve marine ecosystems, but there is much work to be done. Best estimates suggest that overfishing resulting from poor enforcement, a lack of science-based management strategies and inadequate global governance reduces global fisheries production by $83 billion annually. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 90 percent of the marine fisheries they monitor are being fished to capacity or over capacity. Unless we can shine a light on what happens out on the oceans, some fleets will continue a “race to fish,” trying to grab what’s there before it is gone.
Global Fishing Watch shines that light, and creates the opportunity for transparency on the ocean that has never been possible or available to the public before. Global Fishing Watch was founded in 2014 by a partnership between the ocean conservation organization Oceana, the non-profit satellite analysis watchdog group SkyTruth, and Google. In 2017, we became an independent non-profit with the mission of advancing the sustainability of our ocean through increased transparency in fisheries.
When fishing vessels operate over the horizon and out of sight, they are invisible to most of the world. We reveal their activity to everyone who has an internet connection. Using cloud computing and machine learning, we process remote signals from commercial ships at sea to identify fishing vessels and determine when they fish based on their movements. We share the resulting data and fishing behavior analysis with researchers, governments and NGOs , and we plot the positions and tracks of every vessel in our system on a public, web-based interactive map.
Our aim is to revolutionize the ability to monitor and visualize the global commercial fishing fleet. Our data and analysis is being used to accelerate scientific research and innovation, promote effective fisheries policy, and improve market incentives and seafood traceability.
Already, Global Fishing Watch is changing the conversation around transparency in the commercial fleet and driving greater openness among world leaders. We originally built our platform relying exclusively on publicly broadcast automated identification systems (AIS) signals, but in June 2017, the Republic of Indonesia became the first nation ever to share their vessel monitoring system (VMS) data publicly by publishing it through Global Fishing Watch. In October, Peru committed to doing the same and other nations are expressing interest in joining the bold movement toward transparency. We are also integrating freely available radar data and infrared light information from sources such as the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) VIIRS satellite night imagery, allowing us to see many vessels that are not transmitting on AIS and VMS.
When governments such as Indonesia and Peru share their VMS and see additional layers such as SAR and VIIRS, they learn more about the activity of their fishing fleet and foreign fishing vessels in their waters. Also, they demonstrate their commitment to openness and foster trust and cooperation among other nations. For nations without a robust monitoring system in place, Global Fishing Watch can serve as an affordable first step in revealing the extent and patterns of fishing within their EEZs.
On June 5, 2016, the Port State Measures Agreement entered into force to strengthen and harmonize port controls and prevent illegally caught fish from entering the global market. The number of countries ratifying PSMA exceeds 50 with more expected. Stronger port controls will leave criminal fishers with fewer places to sell their catch and greatly reduce illegal fishing around the world, but for that to work, we need greater transparency on the ocean where the fishing occurs.
Currently, catch documentation is self-reported, and documentation schemes vary across regions and fisheries. Electronic tracking can provide verifiable, standardized, globally accessible data about where and when vessels fished. What’s more, it provides incentive for self-correcting behavior because fishing operators who don’t abide by laws and regulations stand out, drawing attention to their behavior and potentially inviting more rigorous port checks. Meanwhile, operators with good practices benefit from unhindered access to ports and seafood markets.
Access to markets is becoming more important as consumers increasingly demand to know the source of their food. Transparency in fishing operations reassures the public of the provenance of the catch they consume. Seafood suppliers are starting to use Global Fishing Watch to provide tracking information to their buyers about the fishing boats that catch their product. We envision a day when a consumer can scan a barcode on a package of fish and learn exactly what vessel caught the fish and where it operates.
In June 2014, the discovery of large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand stirred the Fishing industry and has led to pledges from major seafood companies to eliminate products in their supply chains that have been obtained through illegal fishing, abusive labor practices or trafficking. One means of doing that focuses on transshipment, the practice of transferring catch between vessels, which is often associated with illegal activity. Nestlé, for instance has committed to a full ban on transshipment at sea in its supply chains, while Mars has committed to suspend the use of transshipped products in their supply chains if its seafood suppliers cannot adequately address the human rights and illegal fishing issues associated with the practice.
By applying machine learning algorithms to our database of fishing vessel activity, our data scientists developed a global footprint of activity consistent with transshipment. The resulting reports shined a light on the extent of the problem, and revealed patterns of transshipment among certain fleets and in certain areas.
Transparency is also critical to transforming the quality of science-based management because scientists must have accurate information on how much fishing occurring, where and when it is occurring, and by which methods. Global Fishing Watch offers a public facing platform that provides that basic data and shines a light on where data is missing. It can provide a clear picture of where the resources are being extracted, and it can be used to inform policies that promote sustainable fishing.
When everyone can see where fishing occurs:
As we continue to develop Global Fishing Watch, our systems will be able to ingest more and different types of data. We anticipate expansions in AIS requirements to smaller vessels and the incorporation of VMS data from all fishing nations into our database. It is our vision to reveal the activity of vessels responsible for 90 percent of the global catch in the coming years.