Tracking the locations of the world’s fishermen can help save the oceans

Environmental researchers and advocates teamed up with Google and satellite-imaging company SkyTruth to curb illegal overfishing.

Tuna caught by foreign fishermen aboard American boats are lined up at the Honolulu Fish Auction at Pier 38 in Honolulu. A single yellowfin tuna can fetch more than $1,000, and vendors market the catch as “sustainable seafood produced by Hawaii’s hard-working fishermen.” CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CALEB JONES
Tuna caught by foreign fishermen aboard American boats are lined up at the Honolulu Fish Auction at Pier 38 in Honolulu. A single yellowfin tuna can fetch more than $1,000, and vendors market the catch as “sustainable seafood produced by Hawaii’s hard-working fishermen.” CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CALEB JONES

When you’re hungry, thinking about how your food made its way to the plate isn’t really at the front of your mind. That tuna steak you grilled for dinner or the artisan shrimp burger from Sunday’s brunch were probably delicious, but may have been part of the up to $12 billion haul of seafood illegally caught by pirates each year.

Nearly 2.5 billion people worldwide exclusively depend on seafood for protein, a dwindling commodity thanks to illegal and over-fishing practices. Pirate fishing represents a small fraction of all fisheries but it’s an extremely lucrative global business that is often intertwined with drug and human trafficking. Pirates frequently hide in plain sight, skirting government regulations by avoiding GPS-tracking and fishing alongside legitimate fishing vessels.

Governments around the world, including the United States, urge fishermen to track their location as a way to ensure the seafood troves they bring in are caught using methods that minimize damage to the environment and protected species. But activists and researchers haven’t had a singular place where they could get near real-time access to fishing routes, patterns, and locations.

“Historically, fishermen have resisted efforts that require them to broadcast their location because they felt it would put them at a competitive disadvantage.”

Enter Global Fishing Watch, a three-way partnership between Oceana, an ocean life advocacy group, Google, and SkyTruth, an environmentally-driven satellite data sensing company. Global Fishing Watch aggregates the world’s fishing vessel data into one system and spits out a look at what law-abiding fishermen are up to with a 72-hour delay — giving authorities a glimpse at where pirates are hiding at the same time.

SkyTruth’s president, John Amos, told ThinkProgress that by combining satellite imagery with a total of 35 billion data points voluntarily submitted by fisheries to the public Automatic Identification System (AIS), it’s possible to “identify who was out there” and “make some intelligent decisions about what they’re doing.”

Global Fishing Watch creates a heat map that tracks fishing vessel movements. The data allows fishermen, researchers, and activists to make educated predictions of what type of gear fishermen are using and whether they are fishing in restricted waters.

Fishing activity for fleets belonging to China, Japan, and Spain. CREDIT: OCEANA/GOOGLE/SKYTRUTH
Fishing activity for fleets belonging to China, Japan, and Spain. CREDIT: OCEANA/GOOGLE/SKYTRUTH

By mapping a vessel’s track, Amos said, users can differentiate between boats simply leaving port to go to another location and when and where they dropped their gear. “And that was a revelation. Here was an independent way from space to actually detect fishing effort. If you can see the indications a vessel is fishing and you can see the licensing of that vessel, you can see if they’re fishing legally.”

From there, governments and advocacy groups can use the data to intercept illegal fishing practices remotely and make ocean-based efforts more efficient.

“The operators that are making themselves trackable — if they’re fishing there, the illegal fishers are there.”

“It gives scientists an independent [source] of fishing effort over a span of time. You no longer have to rely on the logs and reports that are coming from the vessels themselves or put an observer onboard,” Amos said.

But the technology also works for fishermen trying to woo eco-conscious consumers or tap into rich markets like the U.S., which has been a leader in sustainable fishing practices. (Advocates worry that reputation is threatened by recent proposals that would give fishery managers more discretion in hitting catch limits and conservation efforts.)

“Proactive fishing vessel operators are going to see the opportunity to illustrate to their customers that they are the good guys,” Amos said, “ by voluntarily adopting tracking practices.”

And as more vessels track their movements, the easier it is to spot illegal vessels.

“The operators that are making themselves trackable — if they’re fishing there, the illegal fishers are there,” Amos said. “The bulk of the legitimate fleet is broadcasting, that’s where they are.”

Masked Somali pirate Hassan stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/FARAH ABDI WARSAMEH
Masked Somali pirate Hassan stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/FARAH ABDI WARSAMEH

Pirate vessels may or may not have a logged vessel ID and ships engaging in risky or illegal practices tend to avoid AIS tracking data, frequently turn it on and off, or spoof their locations to show they’re fishing in the Gulf of Mexico when they’re really fishing off the coast of Africa.

“Historically, fishermen have resisted efforts that require them to broadcast their location because they felt it would put them at a competitive disadvantage,” Greenpeace’s oceans campaign director John Hocevar told ThinkProgress. “But technology has advanced to the point where anyone who was interested could follow them on radar, so it’s less of an issue.”

But tracking fishing behavior isn’t just about following the rules — it also protects legitimate fishermen who lose business to pirates and fish populations threatened by increased fishing activity.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), overfishing cuts the amount of available seafood in the ocean by 1 million tons a year.

Overfishing cuts into the food supply and countries’ economies. Fishing makes up at least 10 percent of the global economy, according to the World Bank. Coastal communities, often poor people of color, are hit hardest when fish levels drop, reducing available food and earning potential, a predicament that often forces people into illegal activity such as hijacking.

“For most of human existence, we ate the fish that lived near our small communities. And as we expanded our populations, we started fishing further, the Arctic, the middle of the ocean, shallow waters. There’s literally no place left for fish to hide,” Hocevar said. “For the average person, you go to the beach it looks the same, you go to the grocery store, there’s fish to buy. But they’re often farmed and coming from remote places of the world.”

Only 2 percent of the ocean is protected, which leaves a lot of space for fishermen to trawl. But it’s not all bleak.

Technology improvements can make it easier to identify problematic fishing techniques and slow down some of the damages caused by overfishing and illegal fishing practices, such as by-catch or the wildlife that gets caught in fishing nets by accident.

“The good news is that we have solutions to most of this stuff. We can catch fish in a way that doesn’t deplete populations and doesn’t have high rates of by-catch and protects biodiversity,” Hocevar said. “And strengthening regulations requiring vessels to more regularly report their location is a part of that.”

Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify that Global Fishing Watch uses a total of 35 billion data points to create a near real-time heat map of fishing vessels’ location with a 72-hour delay.