Global
Fishing
Watch
A Technology Initiative to Illuminate Global Fishing Activity
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Global overfishing is destroying ocean ecosystems. Nearly one-third of marine fish stocks worldwide have been overfished, and over 90% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited or over-fished, according a 2014 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
The global fishing fleet operates far out at sea, over the horizon and out of sight. Until now…
Global Fishing Watch is a technology platform that uses satellite data to inform the public about overfishing and make global fishing activity more transparent.
Global Fishing Watch

Global Fishing Watch is the product of a technology partnership between SkyTruth, Oceana, and Google that is designed to show all of the trackable fishing activity in the ocean. This interactive web tool – currently in prototype stage – is being built to enable anyone to visualize the global fishing fleet in space and time. Global Fishing Watch will reveal the intensity of fishing effort around the world, one of the stressors contributing to the precipitous decline of our fisheries.

With hundreds of millions of people around the world depending on our ocean for their livelihoods, and many more relying on the ocean for food, ensuring the long-term sustainability of our ocean is a critical global priority. We need a tool that harnesses the power of citizen engagement to hold our leaders accountable for maintaining an abundant ocean.

Global Fishing Watch will be available to the public, enabling anyone with an internet connection to monitor when and where commercial fishing is happening around the globe. Citizens can use the tool to see for themselves whether their fisheries are being effectively managed. Seafood suppliers can keep tabs on the boats they buy fish from. Media and the public can act as watchdogs to improve the sustainable management of global fisheries. Fisherman can show that they are obeying the law and doing their part. Researchers will have access to a multi-year record of all trackable fishing activity.

The tool uses a global feed of vessel locations extracted from Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking data collected by satellite, revealing the movement of vessels over time. The system automatically classifies the observed patterns of movement as either “fishing” or “non-fishing” activity.

This version of the Global Fishing Watch started with 3.7 billion data points, more than a terabyte of data from two years of satellite collection, covering the movements of 111,374 vessels during 2012 and 2013. We ran a behavioral classification model that we developed across this data set to identify when and where fishing behavior occurred. The prototype visualization contains 300 million AIS data points covering over 25,000 unique vessels. For the initial fishing activity map, the data is limited to 35 million detections from 3,125 vessels that we were able to independently verify were fishing vessels. Global Fishing Watch then displays fishing effort in terms of the number of hours each vessel spent engaged in fishing behavior, and puts it all on a map that anyone with a web browser will be able to explore.

Watch this video to learn more about the map, and see Global Fishing Watch in action...

Frequently Asked Questions

Can't fishing vessels just turn their AIS off?

Sure, but that is certain to draw attention, like wearing a trenchcoat and sunglasses on a hot summer day. Global Fishing Watch will enable us to flag suspicious behaviors like suddenly disappearing, or appearing as if from nowhere, or jumping 1,000 miles and appearing to fish in the middle of Asia. It will give us the opportunity to identify who may have something to hide, and who is operating openly and transparently. Secondly, more countries and intergovernmental agencies like Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) are requiring AIS use within their waters, so more fishing vessels will be legally compelled to use AIS in the coming years. Many already are. For example, as of May 2014, all European Union-flagged fishing vessels over 15 meters in length are required to use AIS. Perhaps most importantly, AIS was primarily designed as a safety mechanism to help avoid collisions at sea. Turning off your AIS just to avoid being tracked puts your vessel and crew at risk of being run down by a cargo ship in the middle of the night.

Do "pirate" fishing vessels that engage in Illegal, Unregulated, Unreported (IUU) fishing even use AIS at all?

Nearly any large vessel will be expected to use AIS when navigating busy coastal waters, particularly approaching or leaving port. A longliner might switch off its AIS a few hours after it leaves the harbor, and might remain "invisible" for months, but as they return to port we'll likely see them when they turn their AIS back on. But we think the most important purpose for Global Fishing Watch is to provide an easy way for fishing vessel operators to show the world they are fishing legally. By consistently using an AIS transponder, those operators might be able to fetch a higher price for their catch -- or get access to markets that some day may be closed to any fishing vessel that doesn't meet this basic transparency standard. As more vessels voluntarily use AIS to show they are operating legitimately, the size of the "dark fleet" will steadily shrink -- allowing the authorities to focus their attention and resources more effectively on those vessels who continue to operate in the shadows.

Won't this just show everyone where the fish are?

Not really. Commercial fishing fleets are already using sophisticated technology like helicopters, tracking beacons, fish-finding sonar, and even fish forecasts based on satellite data to find and catch every fish they can. Global Fishing Watch shows where fishing activity happened; it doesn't predict where fish are likely to be in the future.

Is listening in on AIS signals an invasion of privacy?

No. AIS was designed to be an open, public communications tool. Vessels that use AIS are voluntarily making themselves trackable to everyone around them. Monitoring vessel activity through satellite AIS is already a well-established practice in the shipping, insurance, and commodities industries. Global Fishing Watch shows commercial resource extraction that takes place on the open ocean, not on private property. Our fisheries are a common resource, whether on the high seas that belong to everyone, or in the sovereign waters of individual nations.

Project Partners

SkyTruth hopes this illustration of global fishing activity, when made available on a public map for the first time, will prompt people to start asking a lot of questions about how well our ocean and its living resources are being managed and protected. Since 2001, SkyTruth’s mission has been to make more of the world visible to the people that live in it; we’re driven by the belief that better transparency leads to better management and better outcomes. At SkyTruth we’re always looking for opportunities to collaborate, so please use the contact form below to let us know how we can work together.

“Global Fishing Watch will empower all stakeholders, including governments, fishery managers, citizens and members of the fishing industry itself, so that together they may work to bring back a healthy, bio-diverse and maximally productive ocean. By engaging citizens to hold their elected officials accountable for managing fisheries sustainably and for enforcing fishing rules, Global Fishing Watch will help bring back the world’s fisheries, protecting and enhancing the livelihoods of the hundreds of millions of people who depend on ocean fisheries for food and income.”
    - Andrew Sharpless, CEO Oceana

Read our report - [PDF]
Learn more - www.oceana.org/globalfishingwatch

While many of the environmental trends in the ocean can be sobering, the combination of cloud computing and massive data is enabling new tools to visualize, understand and potentially reverse these trends. We are excited to contribute a Google-scale approach toward ocean sustainability and public awareness.
    - Brian Sullivan, Program Manager, Google Ocean & Earth Outreach

Funders: If you are interested in helping to fund Global Fishing Watch please contact Andrew Sharpless directly at asharpless@oceana.org

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SkyTruth uses remote sensing and digital mapping to create stunning images that expose the landscape disruption and habitat degradation caused by mining, oil and gas drilling, deforestation, fishing and other human activities.

Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Oceana wins policy victories for the oceans using science-based campaigns. Since 2001, Oceana has protected over 1.2 million square miles of ocean and innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures. More than 600,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America, Europe and Asia.

Google Earth Outreach gives nonprofits and public benefit organizations the knowledge and resources they need to visualize their cause and tell their story in Google Earth & Maps to hundreds of millions of people.