For better or worse, technology is taming the high seas

Tony Long, CEO Global Fishing Watch

Ahead of World Oceans Day 2019, Tony Long, Global Fishing Watch CEO, reflects on how a technology revolution is transforming our relationship with the global ocean, enabling us to see what’s happening beyond the horizon as never before, and unleashing a new realm of marine science. Good news for people and planet – as long as governments and industry embrace transparency, democratise data and pursue sustainability.

Mind the gap

How much do we really know about the global ocean? According to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), not much. Its recent report, ‘The Science We Need for the Ocean We Want’, found only 0.04% to 4% of total research spend worldwide goes to ocean science, and revealed major disparities in national capacity to conduct research, with Small Island Developing States especially limited.

Source: ‘The Science We Need for the Ocean We Want’, IOC

It’s been said that less is known about the seafloor than about the surface of Mars and these findings throw the major knowledge gaps hampering marine governance into stark relief.

In response, the UN has designated 2021-2030 as the Decade of Ocean Science, aiming to strengthen international cooperation on research and innovation, restore ocean health and deliver the Sustainable Development Goals.

This is a welcome development. Without good science, technology transfer, ocean literacy and well-informed decision-making, we will never achieve the clean, safe, open, healthy, productive and resilient ocean we need for our future prosperity.

Source: ‘The Science We Need for the Ocean We Want’, IOC

Here be dragons

Yet the high seas present perhaps the biggest management challenge of all the global commons. Still akin to areas marked apocryphally on old maritime charts as ‘Here be dragons’, they are effectively lawless – a place of abuse and crime, and now decline.

Largely unseen, a handful of wealthy nations are over-exploiting valuable resources on an industrial scale, threatening the food security of 3.2 billion people who depend on fish for protein, not to mention the livelihoods of millions of artisanal coastal fishers.

Accounting for 20% of the global catch, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing robs governments and legitimate fishermen of seafood, and inadequate governance reduces fisheries production by $83 billion annually.

According to the recent IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, humanity has significantly altered two-thirds of the marine environment, and 93% of all fish stocks are fished at either maximum sustainable or unsustainable levels.

And while the global fishing fleet increased from 1.7 million to 3.7 million boats between 1950 and 2015, for the amount of effort expended, the average catch fell more than 80%.

After centuries of taking the ocean’s bounty for granted, we are running up against its limits.

Fishermen set out for sea after summer fishing suspension ends, Zhejiang Province, China, 2014.

Dawn of the digital ocean

The good news is that the long-hidden global ocean is now quickly coming into view. New technologies powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution are driving a data and information revolution set to fill the knowledge gap and transform our understanding and management of the ocean.

A rapid proliferation of sensors carried by new generation satellites, ocean-going drones, buoys and boats is producing a flood of new data on the back of which new processing technologies are unlocking powerful new insights. Once blind, we can now see with ever-increasing clarity what’s happening both on and in the water.

And at Global Fishing Watch, we’re harnessing this revolution to offer governments, communities, industry and civil society the tools and insights they need to better monitor fishing activity, manage ocean resources for sustainability, and drive transparency and accountability in markets and business.

Using the sort of technology previously only available to intelligence agencies, at a fraction of the cost, we apply machine learning to vessel GPS data – more than 60 million points of information per day – to determine which vessels are fishing when and where, as well as what type of gear they’re using, allowing us to flag suspicious activity.

This deceptively simple achievement alone has enormous potential to improve ocean management and conservation, most of which is yet to be realised.

Research revolution

In turn, the fishing data revolution we’ve helped unleash has triggered a scientific revolution, unlocking previously unavailable research opportunities and spurring innovation. And in the last two years, our research partners have published over 20 scientific papers that are making the unknown known and transforming our understanding and management of fisheries.

For example, the first-ever public database of global fishing activity, based on our analysis of vessel movements, has helped make the case for seven new marine protected areas with a combined area larger than Egypt; detailed modelling of the economics of high seas fishing is informing WTO reform of $20 billion in subsidies driving overfishing; and the first-ever global database of trans-shipments is helping the US Coast Guard to tackle human trafficking and IUU fishing.

A light in the dark

And there’s more to come. Using multiple satellite technologies, including high resolution imaging, radar and night-time light detection, we’re increasingly able to track the world’s ‘dark fleet’ – those vessels that don’t broadcast their position using standard tracking systems. Combined with advanced vessel monitoring algorithms, this new dark fleet dataset will show the true scale of global fishing and reveal IUU fishing hotspots.

In parallel, we’re also developing a high-resolution global map of IUU fishing risk with a focus on forced labour violations that will help authorities deploy limited resources more effectively. Our new map will help identify when and why vessels turn off tracking systems and support modelling of trans-shipment operations, linking owners to risky vessels and revealing risky fleets.

In addition, new models and tools for tracking fishing that go beyond simple measures of ‘hours fished’ and account for numbers of hooks or nets set, combined with electronic and traditional logbook data, as well as environmental and species movement data, will enable us to map which high seas fleets are targeting which species, and estimate trans-shipments as well as fish and marine animal impacts.

Conscious choice

Ten years from now, we will be able to monitor all of the world’s two million plus fishing vessels, and in theory, be able to eradicate IUU fishing, verify sustainable fisheries management and effectively enforce marine protected areas.

Yet simply because we can, it doesn’t mean we will. Most world experts in resource conservation, economics, policy and biology – the people who know the most about the challenges we need to address – often lack both access to proprietary data as well as the capacity and financial resources to conduct analysis.

While the technology wave brings new hope for marine conservation and the global commons, harnessing the opportunities for good must be a conscious choice.

Governments, businesses and investors must embrace transparency, democratise data and pursue sustainability, enabling experts, fishers, communities and NGOs to participate in decision-making and create new solutions.

For better or worse

If we don’t make this choice, we risk exacerbating existing threats. The history of technology in the ocean gives us cause for caution. As innovation enables ever more intensive exploitation, the weaknesses of current governance are ever more apparent. And with more and more fishing vessels chasing fewer fish – current trends suggest a million more vessels on the water by mid-century – we face a serious problem.

The technology revolution demands engagement from us all – good governance from governments responsible for the resources, transparency from the companies exploiting them, and collaboration from the communities who rely on them; application and interpretation from the scientists and researchers who produce new knowledge and understanding; and partnership on solutions from the NGOs who fight for the well-being of our global commons.

A pillar of the UN Decade of Ocean Science is open access to data and technology. Our mission at Global Fishing Watch is making trustworthy data and analysis freely available to as many countries, communities and resource managers as possible.

This World Ocean Day, let’s commit to realising the promise of the coming decade. Working together, we can deliver the stewardship that SDG 14 demands, securing the ocean we need for the future we want.

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