New, Free Tool Gives Everyone a Satellite View of Illegal Fishing

A small swordfish is pulled aboard an illegal Italian driftnet fishing vessel in the Mediterranean Sea. Global Fishing Watch is hoping to make a serious dent in illegal fishing practices like these. Gavin Parsons/Getty Images

An impressive new cloud-based tracking tool, now available to the public, promises to help shackle a multibillion-dollar illegal fishing industry that's threatening the health and sustainability of the world's oceans.

Global Fishing Watch, a collaboration among Oceana, SkyTruth and Google, is an online platform that allows anyone free access to track large fishing vessels via satellite technology. The idea, according to SkyTruth, is to identify illegal behavior, which will "help reduce overfishing and illegal fishing and help restore the ocean to sustainability and abundance."

Illegal fishing poses an acknowledged threat to both the worldwide economy and the health of the planet and its inhabitants. According to the WWF, the costs of illegal fishing may be as high as $23.5 billion annually. As much as 20 percent of all the wild marine fish caught in the world are caught illegally, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts' Ending Illegal Fishing Project. In certain areas of the world, like West Africa, that number is much higher (40 percent!).

From the Pew Charitable Trusts:

[Illegal fishing] threatens the health and therefore the availability of wild-caught fish, a basic source of protein for almost 3 billion people around the world. It also affects the whole ocean ecosystem by removing key species and by using destructive, forbidden practices. It often targets, or takes as bycatch, threatened species such as sharks, seabirds, or sea turtles.

Illegal fishing likely affects you in some way with its wide-ranging economic and social costs. It diverts revenue from legitimate, often developing, economies, diminishes a food source for dependent coastal societies, and threatens the sustainability of fish stocks.

The idea for Global Fishing Watch, which is largely funded by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, emerged in 2014 when the leaders of its founding organizations met at The Economist's World Ocean Summit in Half Moon Bay, California. All were looking for a way to bring some attention to the dangers of illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The three companies couldn't have been better matched. SkyTruth is a nonprofit that uses satellite technology to monitor ecological threats; Oceana is an ocean-advocacy nonprofit; Google, through its Google Earth Outreach, provided a machine-learning tech program to bring it all together.

Here's how it works, from Google:

At any given time, there are about 200,000 vessels publicly broadcasting their location at sea through the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Their signals are picked up by dozens of satellites and thousands of terrestrial receivers. Global Fishing Watch runs this information — more than 22 million points of information per day — through machine learning classifiers to determine the type of ship (e.g., cargo, tug, sail, fishing), what kind of fishing gear (longline, purse seine, trawl) they're using and where they're fishing based on their movement patterns. To do this, our research partners and fishery experts have manually classified thousands of vessel tracks as training data to "teach" our algorithms what fishing looks like. We then apply that learning to the entire dataset — 37 billion points over the last 4.5 years — enabling anyone to see the individual tracks and fishing activity of every vessel along with its name and flag state.

Global Fishing Watch launched last week at the Our Ocean Conference in Washington, D.C., which was hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry. "What we need to do with the Global Fishing Watch and the joining with this network is grow this network so there is not one square mile of ocean where we cannot prosecute and hold people accountable who violate the standards of sustainability on a global basis," Kerry said at the conference. "That's the goal."

The program is still in beta, but the hope is as more people use it — governments, journalists, scientists and companies that are fishing legally, for example — those doing IUU fishing will be forced to abandon their practices.