Get answers to commonly asked questions about Global Fishing Watch and commercial fishing. If you don’t find an answer to your questions here, you might find it in the Global Fishing Watch community discussions.
Frequently Asked Questions
- About detecting illegal fishing
- About Global Fishing Watch
- About our VMS Initiative
- About the map
- About transparency
- About vessel tracking
- Automatic Identification System (AIS)
- Map Features
- Map How-To’s
- Website Help
Every point on the map is fishing activity as recognized by our algorithm.
Global Fishing Watch processes data using machine learning to identify where and when fishing is occurring on a global scale. We’re employing two different kinds of machine learning to help us process all those AIS messages, and to teach us about commercial fishing activity based on the vessel’s movements on the water. To determine when vessels are fishing, we’re using something called feature engineering. We assign a “yes” score when vessels are actively fishing, and a “no” score when they aren’t. To figure out what types of vessels we are seeing—whether they are longliners, purse seiners, trawlers, or other—we’re using another type of machine learning called a neural network.
In both cases, we give the computer a huge amount of AIS data that we’ve already analyzed and labeled by fishing score or vessel classification depending on what we’re training it to find. We call that the training data set. The computer sifts through it, finding patterns and determining which features are relevant and which aren’t. The computer then creates an algorithm, a set of rules that can be used to evaluate other AIS data and tell us what we want to know.
Global Fishing Watch aims to improve the public understanding of where global fishing occurs by providing a free fishing activity map (globalfishingwatch.org/map). We hope that citizens will use Global Fishing Watch to investigate fishing activity in areas of interest – we know that some individuals have monitored their local marine protected areas, for example. However, it is important to note that identifying illegal fishing activity is very difficult because of complicated laws. Just because something may seem illegal or suspicious does not necessarily mean it is.
Global Fishing Watch aims to bring transparency to the global fishing fleet. We process data transmitted by fishing vessels to identify when they are fishing – that is, when and where fishing activity occurs, not just where fishing vessels are. Our purpose is not to identify illegal fishing activity. Laws of fishing at sea can be very complicated and without access to national data it can be nearly impossible to tell when a vessel is fishing illegally. Although our purpose is to track fishing activity, our analysts have identified illegal activity on several occasions, and our data has been used to verify suspected illicit activity. For example, Global Fishing Watch was used to reach a $1 million settlement for Kiribati from a vessel that fished illegally in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a no-take marine reserve.
In addition, we have created algorithms to identify activity patterns of potentially illicit activity. For example, we can identify when a transshipment is occurring. Transshipment is sometimes illegal – our analysts do not specialize in when and where it is permitted, just at recognizing when it occurs based on vessel behavior. For example, our data suggests that transshipment was involved in a case that led to a $5.9 million fine and jail time for vessel operators of a reefer vessel caught carrying illegal sharks and shark fins outside of the Galapagos Marine Protected Area.
Publication of VMS data contributes to ocean management on the global scale as it adds to a more comprehensive understanding of global fisheries. Governments can also benefit from a deeper understanding of their fisheries data by working with Global Fishing Watch.
Going public with their VMS through GFW means for participating governments that:
- Monitoring becomes cheaper, more effective, and that responsible fishing is rewarded.
- Offenders will stand out more clearly and can be penalized appropriately.
- Countries who publicly share their VMS attract attention from buyers and suppliers who care about sustainably sourced and traceable seafood.
- Public sharing of VMS data improves surveillance by encouraging vessels to comply with fisheries regulations; transparency breeds self-correcting behaviour.
- Unauthorised vessels and those that don’t have a history of compliance can be easily spotted and prioritised for inspections.
- Vessels that ‘go dark’ and turn off tracking devices can be held accountable when they come into port.
- Better-targeted inspections for IUU-caught fish can also reveal other issues, such as lack of safety equipment or poor working conditions.
- Public VMS is more cost effective, as by encouraging and rewarding compliance a country increases the number of vessels being tracked, and reduces the surveillance effort through traditional enforcement methods.
- GFW can help identify illegal or suspicious activities at sea, such as transshipment.
In addition to these factors, governments sharing their VMS data publicly through GFW will receive a number of benefits in form of technical support from the GFW team.
Global Fishing Watch plans to partner with 20 nations to make their VMS data public by 2023. We promote government transparency through the public exchange of VMS data to assist countries to better monitor their territorial waters and facilitate cooperative regional surveillance and enforcement.
Global Fishing Watch displays vessel locations with a 72 hour lag. Being displayed in Global Fishing Watch does not compromise a vessel’s commercial catch – commercial fishing fleets are already using sophisticated technology such as helicopters, tracking beacons, fish-finding sonar and even fish forecasts based on satellite data to find and catch fish.
Global Fishing Watch believes that fishing should be 100% transparent. Transparency does not have to be instantaneous, a delay to the public dissemination is entirely possible but the dissemination must contain the information needed to make the activity of the vessel and the catch clearly transparent. It is the fact that fishers are aware that their activity will be made public that drives compliant behaviour across fisheries, such that the honest fishers are not left disadvantaged by those that flaunt the regulations.
The FAO estimates that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for 11–26 million tonnes of fish each year, worth US$10–23 billion, contributing to overfishing and associated with human trafficking and other human rights abuses. IUU fishing is enabled by a lack of understanding of activity that occurs at sea; when activity occurs over the horizon and out of sight, it is often difficult to monitor. Transparency will contribute to better maritime governance by driving self-correcting behavior and enabling more efficient monitoring of fleets and enhanced scientific research.
When a country decides to “go transparent” on the Global Fishing Watch (GFW) platform by going public with its VMS, it is a conscious decision to support better ocean governance. This supports not only ocean conservation but also protects local economies by identifying persistent illegal behavior of industrial fishing vessels and rewards compliant vessels with easier access to port to land their catch. It is a very cost-effective method of monitoring and control. It can further help to prevent human rights abuses such as forced labor on fishing boats. There is a growing social movement that wants clear evidence of the good provenance of the catch and early adopters of transparency principles will be in the strongest position as this becomes the norm.
Transparent data enables improved scientific research, which paves the way for informed decision making, particularly improved ocean governance. It enables scientists to conduct conservation and compliance-applicable research through open access data. As more data becomes transparent, global fishing activity can be better understood, and in turn, better science-based policy can be developed.
Global Fishing Watch believes that transparency of fishing activity is key to achieving sustainable global fisheries. Proper fisheries management is key to securing the incomes of fishers in the long term and that includes small scale fishing vessels. We will ensure the platform evolves with this tracking need in mind. We have conducted pilot programmes to ensure our platform remains open to new tracking systems. For instance, we’ve been able to display data from a partnership between Bali Seafood, the largest exporter of snapper from Indonesia, and Pelagic Data Systems, manufacturers of cellular and solar-powered tracking devices. Innovations like this can bring the same transparency to small-scale and artisanal fishing vessels as with large industrial vessels.
Vessels can falsify their locations. We have seen vessel tracks that appear in impossible places such as the Himalayan Mountains or over Antarctica. We can’t say for sure whether the AIS has been tampered with or is faulty, but the errors have followed regular patterns—varying from a vessel’s true location by a constant amount, or flipping a coordinate from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere. Once we identify the patterns, we can often correct apparently false locations. This affects less than half a percent of the vessels in our database.
Vessels can turn off their AIS and Global Fishing Watch can help detect when this appears to occur. We can see when a vessel appears to turn off its AIS, and we can share that information publicly. We can also flag instances where ships disappear or appear suddenly, jump 1,000 miles at once, or appear to fish on land. AIS was primarily designed as a safety mechanism to help avoid collisions at sea, so turning off AIS can put a vessel and its crew at risk of being hit by another ship. For European fleets, for which we have good data, we believe that they have their AIS broadcasting at least 80 percent of the time.
Global Fishing Watch purchases AIS data transmitted by vessels from ORBCOMM and Spire.
We currently have VMS data from Indonesia and Peru and aim to work with 15 countries to make their VMS data public by 2022. National VMS systems can be a big help in filling these gaps as national requirements for VMS are typically stricter than those for AIS. For example, Indonesia’s VMS data includes nearly 5,000 medium-sized commercial fishing vessels that are not required to carry AIS. Their inclusion in the Global Fishing Watch database reveals commercial fishing in vast areas of the ocean where it had previously been invisible. Similarly, inclusion of Peruvian VMS data increased the number of publicly trackable fishing vessels tenfold. In rare instances where these vessels use both AIS and VMS, the addition of VMS data helps us better track and verify our data.
There are two general types of vessel tracking systems – transmitters and loggers. Transmitters use satellite tracking to continuously transmit vessel locations. The Automatic Identification System (AIS) and Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) are both transmitters. Loggers record location and transmit later. Lots of new technologies are continuously being developed. These include spot trackers with satellite communications ability, options with AIS and satellite communication capability, such as Hali from ORBCOMM, and solutions using cellular phone technology.
AIS and VMS are two different and complementary vessel tracking systems that Global Fishing Watch uses to track global fishing activity. AIS is required for vessels over a certain size by international law, is publicly available, and was designed as a collision avoidance tool for vessels. VMS requirements are at the national level. Data is proprietary to the national government, and VMS was designed for governments to track vessels within their exclusive economic zones and for flag states to track the vessels they have agreed to ‘flag’ globally. AIS systems allow one way communication from the vessels to the satellite or terrestrial receivers they are sending to, while VMS allows back and forth communication. For this reason, VMS is also typically more reliable. The other key difference between AIS and VMS is that AIS provides a higher temporal resolution – VMS systems generally broadcast locations once every 15 minutes to few hours, depending on the system, while AIS broadcasts every few seconds, and can be recorded almost continuously if the vessel is in a region of good satellite or terrestrial reception.
Other satellite detection technologies allow us to generate snapshots of where vessels maybe, even if we can’t track and identify them. Three of these technologies are Optical, Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). Optical satellites allow us, on cloud free days, to count vessels at sea, and current technology allows us to count vessels along the world’s coastline; higher resolution imagery that allows us to identify specific vessels is very limited in scope.
VIIRS satellite uses highly sensitive optical sensors to see lights at night, thus being able to identify, on cloud free days, vessels that fish with lights, such as most industrial squid vessels and some types of purse seines that use lights. SAR uses radar technology to identify the presence of vessels, and has the advantage that it is not limited by clouds.
We are a not-for-profit organization and share our data openly and publicly. We invite collaboration with researchers, governments and industry partners. Anyone can download our processed data and analyses for their own use, or upload their custom layers to our public map. We welcome outside feedback that can improve our datasets, analyses and algorithms. We conduct original analyses of fishing behavior for the purpose of increasing the general body of knowledge about the interaction of fishing and ocean systems. We help governments become more transparent: governments that share their proprietary Vessel Monitoring System data with us for integration into our pubic map increase their ability to manage their waters and commit to a level of transparency and international cooperation that is urgently needed for sustainable management of our oceans.
Global Fishing Watch was founded by a collaboration between Oceana, SkyTruth and Google. In June 2017, Global Fishing Watch gained independent 501(c)3 status. Oceana, SkyTruth and Google are now represented on the organization’s board, but Global Fishing Watch leadership and staff are independent.
Established in June 2017 as an independent non-profit organisation, Global Fishing Watch (GFW) is committed to advancing the sustainability of our oceans through increased transparency. By harnessing cutting edge technology, our mapping platform provides a powerful tool for ocean governance, empowering anyone to view or download data and investigate global fishing activity in near real-time, for free.
GFW was founded in 2015 through a collaboration between Oceana, SkyTruth and Google. GFW’s work is made possible thanks to the generous support of our funding partners, Adessium Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Marisla Foundation, Oceans 5, Walmart Foundation, The Waterloo Foundation and the Wyss Foundation.
GFW’s research, data and technology partners are central to achieving our mission to accelerate innovation and deliver actionable insights to increase transparency in the commercial fishing and sustainable management of our oceans.
Google provides support for Global Fishing Watch by donating technology services, such as cloud computing and machine learning resources. Google does not receive any money from Global Fishing Watch and does not receive the vessel tracking data. Google does not pay for the data and Google does not get to use the data. The VMS data belongs to Indonesia and is only shared with Global Fishing Watch, Inc. which is an independent, not-for-profit company supported exclusively by philanthropic donations. Global Fishing Watch does not pay for the VMS data, and Global Fishing Watch does not sell the data to anyone. All the services that Global Fishing Watch provides to the public and privately to the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries are provided for free through the generosity of the Walton and Packard foundations as well as the other Global Fishing Watch funders.
No matter what the industry, increasing transparency is always met with some anxiety from some corners. These are the concerns we’ve heard:
- Sharing VMS is an invasion of privacy and it reveals fishing grounds to competitors. Larger vessels fishing in Indonesia are already required to reveal this information by carrying publicly broadcast Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). In addition, vessels fishing in other countries, such as the European Union, are already operating under this level of transparency.
- Won’t sharing VMS simply force bad guys to turn off their VMS, undermining those who play by the rules and creating unfair competition? On the contrary, turning off VMS will raise suspicion among authorities and draw attention to illegal activity.
No. In addition to limiting the information available on the public platform, extracting all sensitive data, we publish VMS and AIS data on a 72 hour delay. What we publish in Global Fishing Watch approximates the vessel information already being shared by the European Union and some other countries.
Illegal and unreported fishing has been a problem in Indonesian waters, as it is in many places around the world. Fishing vessels take catch without permits or take more than quotas allowed. Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries of Indonesia, Susi Pudjiastuti is especially concerned about the impact of transshipment in her waters. Transshipment is the practice of transferring catch from one vessel to another, usually to a large refrigerated cargo ship that can collect catch from many vessels before taking it to port, sometimes halfway around the world. The concern for Minister Susi is that fishing vessels are catching fish in Indonesian waters and transshipping it on the high seas, essentially stealing Indonesian fish. In addition, by offloading catch to another vessel, a boat may appear to have not met their quota, so they can continue fishing. They not only steal fish, but they avoid quotas and taxes on what they catch.
Foreign vessel owners and operators will know that fishing in Indonesian waters means operating in an environment where it is harder to undermine effective management and oversight. By establishing a high standard for transparent operation, the government can easily justify strong transparency requirements for foreign vessels and operators, because the same rules are applied to domestic operators. In addition to public sharing, the Indonesian ministry of fisheries is gaining insight into their VMS data through working with Global Fishing Watch. Our analysts are assisting them in developing new ways to use their data for improved vessel monitoring and enforcement. By being the first to share its VMS data, Indonesia is a leader on the world stage, encouraging other nations to embrace transparency and allowing Indonesia to better monitor the vessels of other countries.
In October 2018, Peru became the second country to commit to transparency by publishing their VMS data through Global Fishing Watch. As of May 2018, Costa Rica is committed to doing the same.
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We recommend using Chrome or Firefox as your browser for viewing Global Fishing Watch. We do not yet recommend using Safari or Internet Explorer for viewing Global Fishing Watch, although we expect to optimize Global Fishing Watch for those browsers in the near future.
- Upload a GeoJSON file to GeoJSON.io.
- Copy the link to that uploaded file.
- In the Global Fishing Watch map toolbox, open the Layers tab.
- Click on Custom Layer.
- Add a custom layer in Global Fishing Watch, pasting your GeoJSON link.
- Customize the layer color.
In the map toolbox, open the Layers tab, then open “map layers.”
- Click the report icon (closest icon to the layer name) for the layer you are interested in observing (MPA-No Take, MPA-Restricted Use, EEZ, or RFMO). The report icon will turn white when selected.
- Click within the area you are interested in (e.g. within the MPA-No Take you are interested in, if you selected the report feature for the MPA-No Take layer).
- A pop-up box will appear with the name of the area you have selected. Click “Add to report.”
- You may select multiple regions.
- In the toolbox, click Send Report.
- The report will be emailed to you as an attached file in a few minutes.
The time slider at the bottom of the map determines the time period you are viewing. There are several ways to manipulate the time slider:
- Click on the Start Date in the bottom left corner or End Date in the bottom right corner. A calendar will pop up and allow you to select dates.
- Click on the bars on the left or right edge of the Time Slider, hold and drag to change the start or end time.
- Click on the gear icon in the upper left corner of the box in the in Time Slider and select the time frame you are interested in.
Click on the Filter tab in the toolbox and select the country you are interested in from the dropdown menu. You may view multiple countries’ fleets and customize the color of fishing activity on the map by country.
Click on the Vessels tab in the toolbox to the right and enter the vessel identifying information in the search bar.
You may share your workspace by clicking on the share arrow on the left side of the map below the “+” and “-” icons. This will bring up a unique url for your workspace, which you can copy and save or share with someone, as well as the option to embed your workspace.
No. Commercial fishing fleets are already using sophisticated technology such as helicopters, tracking beacons, fish-finding sonar and even fish forecasts based on satellite data to find and catch fish. Global Fishing Watch shows where fishing activity has apparently occurred; it doesn’t predict where fish are likely to be in the future. The 72-hour time lag also limits the use of Global Fishing Watch as a “fish tracking” tool.
Monitoring a vessel activity through satellite AIS is already a well-established practice in the shipping, insurance and commodities industries, and AIS data is already publicly available. AIS was designed to be an open, public communications tool. Vessels that use AIS are intentionally making themselves trackable to everyone around them. Our fisheries are a common resource, whether on the high seas that belong to everyone or in the sovereign waters of individual nations.
Although not all of them do, we have seen vessels broadcasting AIS that appear to be fishing illegally. This is recognised and is why we continue to build in other data to help us identify where fishing is happening even if AIS or VMS is absent.
IMO requires AIS use by all vessels >500GT, for any vessel >300GT that is on an “international voyage” and for all passenger vessels. IMO Revised Guidelines for the Onboard Operation Use of Shipborne AIS – A.1106(29) 22 AIS should always be in operation when ships are underway or at anchor. If the master believes that the continual operation of AIS might compromise the safety or security of his/her ship or where security incidents are imminent, the AIS may be switched off. Unless it would further compromise the safety or security, if the ship is operating in a mandatory ship reporting system, the master should report this action and the reason for doing so to the competent authority.
In addition, many countries and intergovernmental agencies such as Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) are creating AIS requirements within their waters, so we expect an increase in AIS use in the coming years. For example, as of May 31, 2014, all European Union flagged fishing vessels over 15 meters in length are required to be equipped with AIS, and as of March 1, 2016, all commercial U.S. flagged fishing vessels over 65 feet in length are required to be equipped with AIS.
We have seen vessel tracks that appear in impossible places such as the Himalayan Mountains or over Antarctica. We can’t say for sure whether the AIS has been tampered with or is faulty, but the errors have followed regular patterns—varying from a vessel’s true location by a constant amount, or flipping a coordinate from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere, for example. Once we identify the patterns, we can often correct apparently false locations.
Yes – and Global Fishing Watch can help detect when this appears to occur. We can see when a vessel appears to turn off its AIS, and we can share that information publicly. We can also flag instances where ships disappear or appear suddenly, jump 1,000 miles at once, or appear to fish on land. AIS was primarily designed as a safety mechanism to help avoid collisions at sea, so turning off AIS can put a vessel and its crew at risk of being hit by another ship.
There are some regions of the world that have better coverage than others. Variation in coverage results from the presence or absence of a satellite flying overhead at any given time, reception from terrestrial receivers in the area, vessel densities (which can cause signal interference), and whether or not vessels are transmitting. Overall, coverage continues to improve with the continual deployment of more satellites and with 2017 having substantially better coverage than 2012 due to satellite increases and changes in AIS usage mandates.
Vessel names are taken directly from the AIS message a vessel broadcasts. Transmitters sometimes have errors or are not always properly configured. In some cases, we are able to match vessels to fishing registries and will use the name from there.
We currently do not show all MPAs in our MPA – Restricted Use and MPA – No Take layers as their restrictions vary, and for visualization reasons. We have 3 MPA layers:
- WDPA Protected planet MPA: includes ALL MPAs from Protected Planet.
- MPA No Take: includes ‘no take’ MPAs extracted from Protected Planet WDPA.
- MPA Restricted Use: includes ‘restricted use’ MPAs extracted from Protected Planet WDPA.
In such areas you may see fishing. In no take Marine Protected Areas there should not be fishing, and any apparent fishing in such an area should be subjected to further scrutiny.
The large circles without fishing are almost always EEZs around islands that heavily restrict or prohibit fishing (if you turn on the EEZ Layer in the Global Fishing Watch Map, you will see that they often line up with these blank areas). The circles could also be Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that prohibit fishing (you can turn on the MPA layers to see if that’s the case).
An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is a zone in the ocean in which the adjacent nation has jurisdiction. These generally include waters extending 200 nautical miles from a nation’s coastline but are also drawn closer in where multiple nation’s jurisdictions would otherwise overlap. Each country has special rights regarding exploration and use of resources within its EEZ. For example, if a country establishes that its fishing resources are being fully exploited by domestic fleets, it can exclude foreign vessels. A country can also allow foreign vessels to fish in its EEZ and can sell them fishing licenses.
MPA – No Take includes protected areas where all fishing is prohibited. MPA – Restricted Use contains areas that allow some fishing but impose restrictions such as catch quotas, seasonal closures, or limits on certain types of fishing gear or fishing sectors (commercial vs. recreational, or industrial vs. small-scale).
The Global Fishing Watch detection algorithm is a best effort to mathematically identify “apparent fishing activity by using machine learning at a global scale. It is based on thousands of “training segments” that humans with expertise in fishing have manually classified. Just like humans, the algorithm will make some mistakes. Over time, this will continue to improve as we feed the algorithms more training data and correct the mistakes that are made. As stated in the “fishing activity” definition, further scrutiny is required before any legal action or proof can be made. Overall, the model can recreate the assessment of expert labelers with more than 90 percent accuracy.
The data you see spans from January 1, 2012 to near real-time. The most recent data shown in the map is from 72 hours prior to the present time.