Google Wants You to Fight Overfishing

The search giant’s new Global Fishing Watch map program gives the public access to satellites, big data, and ship tracking information to locate and report illegal fishing activity around the world.

Google has developed a new mapping system designed to monitor all of the trackable fishing activity in the ocean. It visualizes the movement of the global fishing community. (Photo: Youtube)

Nov 14, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Google is taking to the high seas to combat overfishing.

But instead of sending out a fleet of self-driving boats to capture ocean views for its maps, the search giant is tapping satellites, big data, and ship tracking information on more than 3,000 commercial fishing vessels to put you in the driver’s seat—from your computer.

Why? So you can help ensure that the world’s fishing fleets are following the rules.

The prototype project, called Global Fishing Watch, was launched Friday at the 2014 ICUN World Parks Congress in Australia, where Google announced its partnership with conservation groups Oceana and SkyTruth.

It will give the public access to the first global view of commercial fishing operations—responsible in part for the decline of more than 90 percent of the world’s large ocean predator species, such as tuna, marlin, swordfish, and shark.

Illegal, undocumented, and unreported fishing operations are exacerbating the massive decline in fish populations, catching between 11 and 26 million tons of fish per year and costing the global economy upwards of $23 billion annually.

But with most fishing activity occurring far offshore, it’s a crime no one sees, and few governments can effectively regulate—“out of sight, out of mind,” as the project’s video post explains.

That’s where Global Fishing Watch comes in.

The tool uses the Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) installed in large commercial fishing vessels to track their movements across the oceans, giving governments, fishery managers, and basically anybody with an Internet connection the ability to detect suspicious activity in near real time and pinpoint which boats are the real troublemakers.

“So much of what happens out on the high seas is invisible, and that has been a huge barrier to understanding and showing the world what’s at stake for the ocean,” said SkyTruth president John Amos in a statement. “But now, satellite data is allowing us to make human interaction with the ocean more transparent than ever before.”

Google has used its mapping technology to protect animals on land—such as African apes and Sumatran tigers—but this is the company’s first venture into the ocean.

The program should be able to identify and locate boats “exhibiting fishing behaviors” in protected marine areas where fishing is not allowed, track “blacklisted” vessels known for violating fishing laws, and make sure boats don’t illegally turn off their AIS devices to conduct shady business without being detected.

Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana vice president for the United States, said the main goal of the project is to empower individuals to protect the oceans. “This was built to give citizens the power to use this data and pressure their governments and fisheries managers to do something about illegal fishing,” she said.

Savitz noted that honest fishermen could find the technology an important tool as well, using it to locate and report vessels that could be stealing from their catch quotas. “And in terms of traceability of seafood consumption, the program could be very useful to make sure you’re buying sustainably caught seafood,” she added.

While the public version of Global Fishing Watch won’t be released until next year, the prototype version has already been deployed to uncover illegal activity on the high seas.

For instance, Oceana showed the history of the Columbian purse seine fishing vessel Marta Lucia R. Since 2006, the boat has been on numerous countries’ official blacklist—a designation reserved for repeat offenders of fishing regulations.

In 2013, Columbian officials asked the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) to have the boat removed from the list, citing its “total willingness to comply with the provisions of the IATTC” and claiming the boat has been in port in Cartagena since July 2012.

Global Fishing Watch data showed otherwise. The Marta Lucia R crossed the Panama Canal in August of that year, disappearing from the AIS locator system multiple times, and then was recorded at various fishing destinations outside its Cartagena port. IATTC did not have access to such data at the time, and it removed Marta Lucia R from the blacklist in June 2013.

“[This] demonstrates the ability of Global Fishing Watch to identify vessels for which there is a gap in AIS detection, which could be due to the vessel switching off the AIS, and could suggest an intent to avoid detection,” a report from Oceana states.

“There is an urgent need for a tool that harnesses the power of citizen engagement to allow people to hold their leaders accountable for enacting and enforcing fishery laws and for delivering an abundant ocean,” adds the report.

Savitz said the public version of Global Fishing Watch will need about $3 million to $5 million so near real-time data can programmed and automatically updated on the site.

“If we can create our own figures on how often boats dodge detection and what boats repeatedly fish in protected areas, we can start building our own stories on illegal fishing,” she said.