Biogeosciences News

Online Tracking of Ships Fights Illegal Fishing Worldwide

The system currently follows and records the movements of more than 35,000 large fishing vessels globally to bring transparency to commercial fishing activities.


When Kiribati established its Phoenix Islands Protected Area in 2006, the central Pacific island nation at first kept 88% of the 408,250-square-kilometer marine reserve open for commercial fishing. That changed dramatically in January 2015, when the country made the area a no-take marine reserve.

A new technology that uses satellites and online mapping to display locations of commercial fishing vessels has proven the effectiveness of that no-take decision and helped Kiribati enforce the restriction. From January to October 2014, 155 vessels likely spent more than 5000 fishing days within the reserve, but only 12 ships spent a likely 16 days fishing there during the same period in 2015, according to data derived from Global Fishing Watch (GFW), the new system that tracks the vessels in near-real time.

This video showing GFW-plotted fishing vessels in the region around Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area from August 2014 into June 2015 reveals a steep decline in apparent fishing activity in the reserve following the no-take decision.

The public beta version of the monitoring tool launched last month at an international ocean conference. There, actor Leonardo DiCaprio announced this novel way “to address global overfishing and illegal fishing.” Several funders have supported development of the new system, the largest being a foundation established by DiCaprio.

Tracking Ships Through Shipborne Signals

GFW not only tracks vessels but also uses algorithms to analyze those tracks to determine whether a vessel is probably taking fish in a particular area. GFW receives signals from the widely used shipborne Automatic Identification System (AIS), which it uses to project points of light representing ship locations onto a global digital map that anybody with Internet access can view for free.

The platform currently tracks more than 35,000 large commercial marine fishing vessels. Over time, plans call for GFW to track an increasing number of the estimated 64,000 marine fishing vessels that are at least 24 meters long, as well as many smaller ships.

Drawing Attention to Illegal Fishing and Overfishing

AIS signals, which aid collision avoidance and provide ship identifications and locations, now can help draw attention to overfishing and illegal fishing, according to GFW experts.

“For the first time ever, we are trying to bring transparency to commercial fishing worldwide, for the general public for free,” Adam Reyer, GFW project director for Oceana, an ocean conservation advocacy group based in Washington, D. C., told Eos. “You can’t solve the ocean sustainability problem without being able to see what’s going on.”

Oceana partnered with two other organizations to develop the tool: SkyTruth, a nonprofit based in Shepherdstown, W.Va., that uses satellite imagery and remote sensing to monitor the environment, and Google, the computer giant based in Mountain View, Calif.

Millions of Messages Each Day

About 22 million AIS data points showing ship positions are added to the system each day, Brian Sullivan, Google lead for GSW and senior program manager for Google Ocean and Earth Outreach, told Eos. ORBCOMM, a company headquartered in Rochelle Park, N.J., provides those coordinates to GFW on a 72-hour delay to avoid competing with the sale of the company’s real-time data.

Sullivan said that research partners and fishery experts manually classified thousands of ship tracks to teach the system’s algorithms how to determine by a ship’s speed, direction, and turning rate whether it might be involved in fishing activities. “Anyone in the world can go in, click on vessels, see who’s fishing, where they’re fishing, and how that’s changing over time,” he said.

Using Data for Decisions

Several factors may limit the effectiveness of GFW at countering unsustainable and illegal fishing practices, some of the system’s developers and users said. Ships tracked by GFW represent only a small percentage of marine fishing vessels worldwide, which are numbered at 3.2 million by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (the majority of which are local, small wooden boats, according to SkyTruth). Many small ships don’t have or use AIS, with some purposely choosing to remain dark, possibly to cloak fishing activities. What’s more, the algorithms aren’t yet perfect, so some suspect ships may be involved in nonfishing activities. But those familiar with the system point to the number of large ships already tracked and the increasing use of AIS and say GFW information can help curb overfishing and illegal fishing.

“To see where all the fishing is is important because a lot of people are making decisions about fishing, protecting the oceans, or supporting industry [that is] utilizing the oceans. Those decisions are made often in the context of not a lot of data,” said Paul Woods, chief technology officer for SkyTruth, a group that got a lot of attention for analyzing the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill using satellite technology. By publishing the data, people can make more informed decisions, Woods added.

Research Program

In addition to decision makers using the data, the GFW set up a research program to make use of the data. At the 2016 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, researchers will give a series of oral and poster presentations that incorporate GFW data.

Presentations include “A Global View of Large-Scale Commercial Fishing,” “Estimating Clandestine Activities from Partially Observed Processes,” and other topics.

It’s Public Now

John Kerry shakes hands with John Amos at the Global Fishing Watch exhibit area at the Our Ocean Conference.
The public beta version of Global Fishing Watch (GFW) launched on 15 September at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference held at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D. C. Pictured, Secretary of State John Kerry (left) shakes hands with SkyTruth president John Amos at the GFW exhibit area at the conference. Also pictured is Brian Sullivan (center), Google lead for GFW and senior program manager for Google Ocean and Earth Outreach. Credit: Randy Showstack

For SkyTruth president John Amos, the big deal with GFW is that the data are public now. Amos, a geologist by training and a former oil company research scientist, said that although governments and industry have had access to this type of data for a while, the public “has never been able to see where all of this fishing effort is happening” throughout the ocean.

The reaction of people to seeing the “scope and intensity of this fishing” is “shock,” Amos added. “It’s just the pervasiveness of fishing throughout the ocean. It’s a visual picture of the human footprint of intervention.”

Amos said that GFW “is providing measurable data that scientists and policy makers can use to create better management schemes and policies to move our fisheries toward sustainability. That’s the vision. We have a long way to go to get there.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), Online tracking of ships fights illegal fishing worldwide, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO061045. Published on 12 October 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0