Global Fishing Watch


Global Fishing Watch (GFW) is a new technology platform developed by Google, SkyTruth, and Oceana that uses satellite Automated Information Systems (AIS) data to monitor fishing activity around the world in near real-time. By illuminating fishing activity in even the most remote ocean areas, research teams like ours can use GFW data to conduct novel analyses and inform the design and implementation of new fishing policies and regulations, management interventions, and conservation initiatives in nearshore waters and on the high seas. SFG is using Global Fishing Watch data to tackle a diverse set of ocean challenges, including illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, overfishing, and human rights abuses aboard fishing vessels. Below are brief descriptions of the projects currently in our GFW portfolio.

How Profitable is Fishing on the High Seas?

Given the rapid growth of the high seas fishing fleet and dire status of many pelagic species, there is a growing concern that current international treaties are insufficient tools for managing and protecting marine resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction. One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to protect at least 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020, and meeting this target may only be possible if protection is extended to the high seas. In response to this call for greater marine conservation, UN member states have started negotiating a legally binding treaty that would allow MPAs and new regulations on human activities to be implemented on the high seas.
To inform this negotiation process and the creation of future MPAs, SFG is partnering with GFW, National Geographic - Pristine Seas, and the University of British Columbia to develop a bioeconomic modeling framework to estimate the costs and revenues associated with fishing on the high seas. GFW data have given us the opportunity to observe and analyze high seas fishing activity in near real-time from 2012 to the present, and with these data, we are working to determine if large portions of the high seas would no longer be profitable fishing zones if nations stopped heavily subsidizing their distant water fleets. 

Does Piracy Affect Global Fishing Effort? 

We hypothesize that piracy and other anti-shipping activities may temporarily reduce fishing effort near the site of an attack, thereby creating a short-term de facto MPA. Our team has access to a comprehensive database on anti-shipping activities that includes the locations and relevant details of more than 1,000 anti-shipping activities that took place around the world between 2012 and 2016. Using GFW data, we are exploring whether these incidents do in fact have a localized impact on fishing effort following an attack. 

Can Global Fishing Watch Data Be Used to Detect Human Rights Abuses on Fishing Vessels?

We are currently exploring the potential for GFW data to help us detect human rights violations aboard fishing vessels, specifically forced labor and human trafficking. Forced labor effectively reduces variable fishing costs, which may allow vessels to fish more days per year, more hours per day, and to travel further distances from port. We have tested the ability of GFW to accurately detect vessels using forced labor by pairing data from the Thai fishing fleet with information on known human rights offenders. By looking at these datasets side by side, we are able to identify differences in fishing behavior between boats that do use forced labor, and boats that do not. We are now constructing a statistical model to help us estimate the number of human rights violations by the global fishing fleet and the amount of overfishing that is attributed to these violations. 

What Does the Global Network of Transnational Fisheries Look Like?

Never before have we had the technology that is needed to estimate the amount of fishing effort exerted by countries in Exclusive Economic Zones other than their own. Now, using GFW data, we can gather the information we need to visualize the complex network of transnational fisheries. Our analysis has made it it possible to corroborate fishing agreements, better understand international relations, and study the conditions that enable effective sovereignty. We are ramping up several analyses related to this topic that should help us answer big unknowns, such as which nations have the largest fishing presence in foreign waters, and which countries have the most foreign vessels fishing in their Exclusive Economic Zone.

How Can Global Fishing Watch Contribute to Research and Marine Resource Management?

SFG is excited to be at the leading edge of GFW research. In order to harness the full power of this dataset, we are investigating a variety of different ways that it can be used to revolutionize both research and marine resource management.  

Using GFW data, we are able to analyze cultural and economic drivers of fishing effort, gaining new insights into the lesser-explored factors that influence human behavior. For example, GFW clearly shows the signature of the largest fishing control policy in the world, the Chinese summer moratorium. Similarly, we were able to observe how cultural factors, such as the Chinese New Year, can have a significant effect on the temporal distribution of fishing activity.

We have also tested the effect of fuel prices on fishing activity by analyzing more than 2000 vessels that have consistently been active over the last four years. During this time period, fuel price decreased by more than 60%, but the average distance traveled or days spent at sea increased by less than 3%. This finding suggests that fishing activity is insensitive to fuel prices, possibly as a result of the large subsidies that decouple the industry from the cost of energy.

Can We Estimate Fish Abundance from Space?

We are using GFW to analyze fisher behavior and estimate trends in fish abundance across space and time.  Though it is intuitive to think that fishers’ behavioral patterns reflect the underlying abundance of the fish stock, there are many other factors that influence the choices they make regarding when and where to fish. Some of these other factors include costs, knowledge, and safety. By pairing GFW data with NOAA’s fishery independent population surveys, we are developing novel models that use fishermen behavior to predict fish abundance. This unique analysis will help us better understand the potential for satellite technology to assess the health of our oceans.