Global Fishing Watch Helps Monitor Illegal Fishing

If you still eat fish, Oceana has launched a useful online tool called Global Fishing Watch to help ensure that you select sustainably.

Sifting through the freezer section at your local supermarket, it’s difficult to know for sure where that filet of fish came from. And was that bag of shrimp really sustainably farmed? If you still eat fish and you’re looking for more transparency in your diet, Oceana just released a useful online tool. Global Fishing Watch lets the public track fishing-vessel activity worldwide in real time, for free. 

Global Fishing Watch

Oceana created Global Fishing Watch in conjunction with Google and SkyTruth (a non-profit specializing in satellite imagery). Ocean activist Leonardo DiCaprio unveiled the new program at a U.S. State Department conference in mid-September. The tracker makes the most of satellite data transmitted by the Automatic Identification System (AIS), installed on over 200,000 vessels worldwide as a safety precaution against sea collisions. AIS data includes the ship’s identity, nationality, direction and location. This enabled Global Fishing Watch to create an interactive map of all the vessels under its surveillance.

Obviously, many of the ships picked up by Global Fishing Watch are cargo ships, cruisers or pleasure boats. The tracker processes satellite information and then determines which boats are engaged in fishing. Currently, Oceana estimates that the tracker holds data for more than 35,000 fishing vessels. Users can monitor all of these via the website’s close-to-real-time map. According to DiCaprio, “this platform will empower citizens across the globe to become powerful advocates for our oceans.”

Overfishing Impacts

We need tools like these to monitor overfishing. This, along with issues including pollution and industrialization, has caused a calamitous decline in international fish stocks. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are at their limit or overexploited. The scientific journal Nature estimated that 90 percent of large wild fish species had disappeared from our oceans back in 2003. Finally, the WWF predicts the collapse of all commercial fish species within the next four decades if we don’t change the current rate of exploitation.

If humanity allows this to happen, the ramifications would be disastrous. According to Lasse Gustavsson, Oceana’s Executive Director, “around 450 million people globally…get their primary source of food from the ocean.”

If fish stocks decline beyond repair, the food security of countless people (particularly those living in coastal developing nations) will be at risk. Overfishing in restricted or protected areas contributes mightily to illegal fishing. The damaging effect of such practices also impacts legal fisheries’ income.

Goals of Global Fishing Watch

By creating transparency within the global fishing community, Global Fishing Watch hopes to significantly reduce illegal fishing activity. Interested members of the public will be able to create a kind of Neighborhood Watch for the sea. The tool will hopefully also prove valuable for marine-conservation groups, scientific researchers and environmental law-enforcement agencies. By using it as a monitoring aid, the latter in particular will be able to see when a fishing vessel enters a Marine Protected Area or no-take zone.

This capability will be especially useful in countries that don’t have the manpower or the financial resources to effectively patrol vast expanses of ocean, hoping to stumble upon illegal fishing operations. Global Fishing Watch will also allow scientists to gauge effectiveness in newly established protected areas. The technology has already been used to evaluate the success of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, recently designated as a no-take zone.

Lastly, by making overfishing highly visible, Global Fishing Watch hopes to help increase awareness of where our seafood comes from. By letting people see where fishing vessels are active, it may inspire them to choose their seafood more carefully. To see for yourself, sign up for free and start browsing the fishing vessels currently operating near you.