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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.

Tracking the Global Footprint of Fisheries

Working closely with Global Fishing Watch and other research partners, we published a paper in 2018 that introduces Global Fishing Watch to the scientific community, documents its underlying methodology, and highlights the types of research questions that these data can be used to examine. We processed 22 billion automatic identification system (AIS) messages and tracked more than 70,000 industrial fishing vessels from 2012 to 2016, creating a dynamic, global footprint of fishing effort with a spatial and temporal resolution two to three orders of magnitude higher than than that of previously existing datasets. Our data show that industrial fishing occurs in more than 55% of ocean area and has a spatial extent more than four times that of agriculture. We find that global patterns of fishing have surprisingly low sensitivity to short-term economic and environmental variation, and a strong response to cultural and political events such as holidays and closures. 

high seas fishing profits

Map of the footprint of global fisheries. Total fishing effort in 2016 by all vessels with AIS systems. Click on image for source.


How Profitable is High Seas Fishing?

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.

Until very recently, we have not had a detailed characterization of high seas fishing fleets including spatial and temporal patterns of effort, differences across gear types and flag states, transhipment patterns, and - most importantly - the economics of fishing this vast area of the ocean. To fill this knowledge gap and inform the UN negotiations, we partnered with GFW, National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas, and the University of British Columbia to develop an economic modeling framework and estimate the costs and revenues of fishing the high seas globally, nationally, and at the scale of individual fleets. We find that at least 3600 vessels fish the high seas, and only six nations - China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea,  Spain, and Indonesia - account for ~80% of all fishing effort. We find that on average, high seas fishing is only economically profitable with the help of massive government subsidies, estimated to be $4 billion per year. Without these subsidies, and if labor wages on fishing vessels were fair, we estimate that up to 54% of the high seas fishing grounds would not be profitable when fished at current exploitation rates. The patterns of fishing profitability vary widely between countries, types of fishing, and distance to port, with high seas trawling being the most heavily subsidy-dependent fishery. These results support recent calls for subsidy and fishery management reforms on the high seas.

fishing profits on the high seas

Map of fishing profits on the high seas before subsidies. Click on image for source.

Can IUU Measures Provide an Alternative Pathway to Recovering Global Fisheries?

Global fishery reform has the potential to improve the long-term health and economic value of fisheries across the world’s oceans, but typically, this recovery process requires a short-term reduction in fishing effort, catches, and profits--a cost that many countries, especially those in the developing world, are unable to bear. Using satellite data that track fishing vessels, we show that countries experiencing high levels of IUU fishing, such as Indonesia, can kickstart their fishery recovery process without significantly cutting local fishing effort, catches, and profits by taking action against IUU fishing. By removing foreign vessels fishing illegally in their waters and reducing the pressure on their resources, countries are better positioned to chart a more sustainable path toward effective fisheries management. We expect that a worldwide reduction in IUU fishing will act as a catalyst for global fishery recovery.

Uncovering the Effects of Modern Piracy on the Global Shipping Industry

Maritime shipping has historically been susceptible to piracy. Previous assessments of this phenomenon indicate that because the majority of encounters take place along the most important shipping routes in the world, all piracy events collectively take a significant economic toll on the shipping industry. For this project, we are evaluating the sparse theoretical literature on this topic, proposing new insights, and validating our claims using a unique dataset on shipping voyages and pirate encounters to conduct a rigorous assessment on piracy and the shipping industry. Our analysis will provide the highest-resolution look at this issue to date, as we are able to examine the effect of piracy on shipping patterns at the individual vessel level. Our preliminary results suggest that individual vessel responses to the threat of piracy result in a more than $30 billion increase in the total cost of maritime shipping every year. This result is significant and demonstrates that when scaled to the industry level, individual vessel behaviors can impose tremendous economic costs. This result also signifies the importance of improving patrolling and enforcement in the world’s most heavily-pirated EEZs, and highlights the need for providing alternative livelihoods in impoverished coastal communities so fewer people resort to piracy in order to make a living. 

Shining a Light on Forced Labor in Fisheries

In recent years, a spotlight has been shone on tragedies involving forced labor in the global fishing fleet, effectively raising our global awareness of these issues. SFG is currently exploring the potential for GFW data to detect forced labor violations aboard fishing vessels. Forced labor effectively reduces fishing costs, which allows vessels  to travel and fish further distances from port. Vessels using forced labor also spend extended time periods at sea and utilize transshipment in an attempt to avoid oversight and port inspections. These and other risk indicators are all now observable in near-real-time using GFW. Leveraging expert knowledge on the most important risk indicators and a novel data set of vessels known to have used or not used forced labor, we are using a machine learning approach to build an algorithm that can identify risky vessels. This will help shed light on global trends as well as specific fisheries and hotspots where this problem may be particularly prevalent. Ultimately, this information will increase transparency and awareness of this problem among the global community, and could be used by distributors and suppliers to drive positive change in the fishing industry, and by governments and NGOs to anticipate, respond to, and prevent these horrific activities. This project is a collaborative effort between our team, Global Fishing Watch, SkyTruth, and the Walmart Foundation. 

Understanding the Global Network of Transnational Fisheries

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. Through our analyses, we have produced new and important insights about the global network of transnational fisheries. For example, we now know that between 2013-2016, China, South Korea, and Taiwan were the top three flag states to fish in foreign EEZs, with each country fishing in more than 50 foreign EEZs. Furthermore, the biggest global hotspots for foregin fishing activity are in western Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the western and central Pacific.

fishing efforts data map

Map of the Global Network of Transboundary Fisheries. Line color indicates the source (blue) and sink (red) of fishing effort. Circle size is proportional to the total foreign fishing effort in each EEZ. Click on image for source.

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.