Global Fishing Watch, a website open to anyone with an internet connection, is being used to track movements of fishing fleets on the high seas. Google launched the website in 2016 in partnership with Oceana and SkyTruth.
The website uses big data to track movement of boats, thereby enabling governments, regulators and civil society groups to track whether fishing fleets are abiding by fishing rules. All vessels weighing over 300 tons are legally required to publicly broadcast their location at sea using a GPS-type broadcast known as an automatic identification system (AIS) data, a safety mechanism designed to prevent collisions. The Global Fishing Watch platform feeds this, along with other data sources, into a machine learning classifier that determines which vessels are fishing boats, what kind of fishing gear they are using and where they are fishing. The platform is the first public, free, interactive view of the world’s largest industrial fishing vessels. It also includes an online map that allows anyone with an internet connection to track fishing activity in near real time, from 2012 up to three days ago.
The developers say that they built the platform to provide a transparent view of commercial fishing activities across the globe, in the hope of protecting critical marine habitats and providing new tools for sustainable fisheries management for the long term. The need for such a platform is clear; according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation more than 15 percent of the world’s fishing catch is illegal, unreported, and unregulated and nearly 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are overfished or fully fished.
So far, Global Fishing Watch seems to have enjoyed some success; since its launch governments, researchers, and fishery organizations have used it to not only crackdown on illegal fishing but also in new innovative ways. It has been used to create new marine reserves, strengthen local fishing economies, and even to identify vessels using slave labour. Developers are hoping to strengthen the platform further so that it can be used to provide a live view of vessels and also after dark with the aim to crack down on transshipping – when catches are transferred from one ship to the next.
Could this be a significant step towards revitalising the world’s dwindling fishing stocks? Will fisherman who engage in illegal fishing be able to bypass this platform by switching to smaller vessels, or will this help spell the end of illegal fishing? What other sectors could use similar initiatives to encourage further transparency?