Watch This Technology Catch Poachers Who Threaten Endangered Monk Seals

Conservationists are crunching big data to find rogue vessels operating in marine-protected areas.
Jan 12, 2015·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Kiribati, an island nation that sits midway between Hawaii and Australia, first established the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in 2006 to preserve a wealth of marine life, including the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

Until 12 days ago, commercial fishing was still legal in the marine reserve under license by the Kiribati government. That changed on Jan. 1, when a full ban on such harvests took effect.

But how to know whether the ban is being respected or enforced? The Phoenix Islands reserve’s boundaries encompass an area of 2.5 million square miles—roughly the size of California.

Activists are answering the question by using the sort of big-data analysis tools that companies use to track and analyze our spending habits and Web surfing and devoting them to monitoring commercial fishing vessels around the world. That will help protect not just the Kiribati preserve but marine reserves in the United States and around the world. The U.S.’s Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, for instance, are also part of a Polynesia-Micronesia biodiversity hot spot that includes the Phoenix Islands preserve. Overall, the U.S. has 14 marine-protected areas covering more than 170,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lakes waters.

The technology platform, called Global Fishing Watch, is the result of a partnership of the nonprofits SkyTruth and Oceana with Google. It’s fueled with satellite data from an ocean vessel tracking technology called Automatic Identification System.

Vessels using AIS carry radio frequency transmitters that broadcast the ship’s position, size, speed, and bearing several times a second. Nearby ships also using AIS receive those signals and use them to navigate safely among and around other vessels.

“Large cargo ships use this system so little guys can skedaddle out of their way,” said John Amos of SkyTruth. “But more and more fisheries managers around the world are requiring vessels to carry AIS devices because they recognize it’s a powerful tool for tracking fishing activities.”

Global Fishing Watch looks within AIS data for vessels making frequent back-and-forth movements, because that is a typical ocean-fishing pattern.

Last November, at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, the partners demonstrated Global Fishing Watch’s capabilities with a video animation of historic satellite data, “two years worth of global vessel tracking data, 3.8 billion data points for 2012 through 2013,” said Amos.

The technology picked out the back-and-forth vessel movements associated with fishing, cutting down the data points to a comparatively manageable 35 million.

“We turned that into hours of fishing effort and put that on a big global map in color, so anyone could see the time [the vessels] spent fishing,” Amos said. “It’s a true big-data problem.”

Eventually, said Amos, there will be a website that any interested citizen can use to find, share, and track global fishing activity.

For now, it’s providing Amos, an expert in satellite data analysis, with daily “snapshots” of what’s happening in and near Kiribati’s marine reserve.

“We’re going, over the next few weeks, to be putting 2014 and 2014 AIS tracking data for the Phoenix Islands area into Global Fishing Watch,” he said. “We hope it will show a big hole of no fishing activity corresponding with location of the protected area.”