// SOUTH PACIFIC // KIRIBATI

Out of the Shadows and onto Your Browser

How satellite data, algorithms and machine learning work together to bring worldwide fishing activity to the click of the mouse


By Ariella Knight

The question occurred nearly simultaneously to two organizations that had yet to meet: how can we bring big data to bear on protecting our oceans? 

Oceana, a global advocacy organization for ocean preservation, was inspired by crowdsourcing initiatives taking place in forest advocacy to make logging activity more transparent. SkyTruth, a small nonprofit that analyzed satellite imagery for environmental causes, started noticing how visible ships were to satellites due to sending frequent GPS coordinates and other data. What would happen, wondered each, if a new tool capitalized on existing data to bring radical transparency of activity on our oceans?

Approached by both Oceana and SkyTruth with this question, Google Earth saw the enormous potential to answering it, and introduced the two companies. And thus a three-way partnership to create Global Fishing Watch was born. 

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
What would happen, wondered each, if a new tool capitalized on existing data to bring radical transparency of activity on our oceans?

To catch a thief, you must think like a thief

The concept for Global Fishing Watch seemed pretty straight forward: use satellites to track the data points emitted by ships, and use this data to detect when a vessel is fishing. But the reality has been much more complicated. Let’s get into the weeds of so-called automatic identification system (AIS) data.

AIS was developed in the 1990’s as a collision avoidance system in which boats send GPS coordinates and other data to each other. Now that it is possible to pick up this data via satellite, AIS data is the primary source of information Global Fishing Watch relies on to track vessels.  Unfortunately, AIS data is extremely easy to spoof, by, for example, sending false GPS coordinates or turning AIS transponders off and on to conceal illegal behavior. And that is exactly what illegal fishermen do. 

Thus, for Global Fishing Watch to work, it not only had to be able to detect fishing activity from AIS signals, but also to predict activity based on abnormalities in data – such as vessels whose AIS transponders just happen to turn off right outside of protected marine parks. Or those whose coordinates appear in the South Pacific, but whose routes perfectly mirror the coastline of South America, as SkyTruth research Bjorn Bergman noted a Chinese vessel was doing earlier this year.

“It’s amazing how much information you can piece together about vessels that turn off or tamper with the technology,” said Global Fishing Watch Project Director Adam Reyer. He should know after the Global Fishing Watch team has spent over two grueling years working to design the technology to out maneuver the AIS gymnastics of oceans criminals.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
For Global Fishing Watch to work, it not only had to be able to detect fishing activity from AIS signals, but also to predict activity based on abnormalities in data.

Testing the Waters: Does it work? 

Even before its official launch, Global Fishing Watch is proving to be a serious adversary to the illegal fisherman. In 2015, Global Fishing Watch’s beta version set out to monitor the waters of the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati and their newly established “no-take” MPA, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, or PIPA for short.

Global Fishing Watch observed the near complete evacuation of all fishing vessels from PIPA by January 1, 2015 – the date of onset of the “no take” regulation. Furthermore, they tracked the vessels that were previously legally fishing in PIPA and could demonstrate that 97 percent of those vessels had relocated to fish in other waters – in other words, they weren’t sticking around to turn off their AIS and fish illegally, as Global Fishing Watch could prove they were actually relocating.

Just six months later, Global Fishing Watch also played a key role in providing evidence for an illegal fishing case in PIPA. In June 2015, Kiribati intercepted a Taiwanese illegal fishing vessel. They reached out to Global Fishing Watch’s Chief Technology Officer Paul Woods and received confirmation that the vessel had been identified fishing in protected waters. This evidence proved critical in their ability to levy a $1 million fine against the poachers - a fine nearly equivalent to 1% of the entire GDP for Kiribati. 

Whether through providing key supporting evidence for prosecution and fines, ensuring compliance with fishing laws or helping  in law enforcement operations, Global Fishing Watch is changing the name of the game for combating illegal fishing. 


ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
Even before its official launch, Global Fishing Watch is proving to be a serious adversary to the illegal fisherman.

Lights, Camera,…

Global Fishing Watch is getting ready for its big debut this fall. Reyer is optimistic about the impact the transparency tool will have, expecting it to extend far beyond combating illegal fishing. Reyer sees benefit for “anyone who has a stake in identifying bad behavior,” including ocean scientists, policymakers and fishing industry who want to better understand whether their fish are illegally sourced. 

The best part, perhaps, is that with Global Fishing Watch, you can help out too, and you don’t even have to get up off of your couch.Take a break from Netflix-binging and pop over to www.globalfishingwatch.org and make sure no one is illegally fishing in your favorite MPA. With Global Fishing Watch, we can all be eyes in the sky to protect our oceans. 

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
The best part, perhaps, is that with Global Fishing Watch, you can help out too, and you don’t even have to get up off of your couch.

Technologies Used

// INTEGRATED SYSTEMS, NETWORKED SYSTEMS AND “BIG DATA”

Global Fishing Watch

Global Fishing Watch is an online platform that shows satellite imagery of all global fishing activity in near real time.

Product Details Integrated Systems, Networked Systems and “Big Data”
// NORTH AMERICA / CALIFORNIA

The Devil's in the Details

What can happen aboard a fishing boat in the span of an hour? The answer – just about anything.

// NORTH AMERICA // CALIFORNIA

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