Global Fishing Watch: Big Data and Artificial Intelligence to end illegal fishing and guide sustainable fisheries


Often times, little is known about the specifics of our seafood by the time it reaches our plate – where and how it was caught, who caught it, and even what type of species it is (a recent report showed that 1 in 5 samples of seafood worldwide was mislabeled). While most of the catch is caught legitimately, roughly 20 percent of the global seafood catch can be attributed to illegal, unreported, and unregulated, or IUU, fishing. Not only does IUU fishing cost the global economy up to $23 billion annually, it poses threats to our oceans’ fisheries and exacerbates human rights abuses.

Global Fishing Watch, an independent non-profit organization founded founded by Google, SkyTruth, and LDF grantee Oceana, is tapping into GPS and satellite technology to combat IUU fishing occurring throughout the world. The goal: to increase transparency improve science-based management strategies and stop illegal fishing by informing governments, consumers, and businesses of harmful and dangerous industry practices. This innovative platform has developed algorithms to track certain vessel characteristics, including their identity, type, location, and speed, providing the tools needed to implement effective regulations.

The largest commercial fishing vessels must send out GPS signals of their location. Realizing the power of this information, Global Fishing Watch took the already existing technology and created an open database platform that can inform the public about the fishing activity of individual vessels. The information has been used by LDF grantee Oceana to identify illegal behavior and is helping researchers to understand patterns of fishing pressure and improve management strategies. It has also revealed the extent of at sea transfer of catch between vessels which can be associated with IUU and human rights abuses.

Governments are now realizing the power of this data and partnering with Global Fishing Watch in the fight against IUU. On June 7th, the Indonesian government officially made its vessel monitoring system data public for the first time ever, and Peru made a similar commitment regarding its national tracking data, setting a new precedent in ocean transparency. This marks an important moment in turning the tide against illegal fishing activities as Peru and Indonesia are two of the largest fishing nations in the world.

Global Fishing Watch also has the ability to shine a light on fishing behavior known to be associated with IUU and human rights abuses. In 2016, the Associated Press released a series of articles about the prevalence of human slavery in Southeast Asia’s fishing industry, freeing almost 2,000 slaves and tracing slave-caught seafood to grocery and pet stores. Using Global Fishing Watch, human rights groups will now be able to identify vessels fishing in a manner consistent with these types of dangerous practices.

In the United States, 90 percent of the seafood we consume is imported – the more information we have on our food, the more power we have to make informed seafood purchases and fight IUU. “Fighting IUU and achieving sustainable fisheries must be addressed on multiple fronts,” says Tony Long, Global Fishing Watch CEO. “Transparency is the thread that can drive change on all fronts by reassuring the public of the provenance of the catch they consume, encouraging government openness and collaboration, vastly improving the quality of science-based management, and aiding monitoring and compliance by helping to make bad actors stand out from the expected norm.”

“Change needs to come from all levels,” says Brian Sullivan, Program Manager for Google Ocean & Earth Outreach, and Chair of the Global Fishing Watch Board of Directors. “Together, LDF and Global Fishing Watch are leading the way into a new era of ocean transparency.”

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