Impact Story: Global Fishing Watch

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Global Fishing Watch is the product of a technology partnership between SkyTruth, Oceana, and Google, designed to enable anyone to see and understand apparent fishing effort worldwide. This, in turn, will help reduce overfishing and illegal fishing and help restore the ocean to sustainability and abundance.

The story of Global Fishing Watch is really the story of a team coming together over the vision of what might be possible with satellite data on a global scale.

More than a decade after its founding, SkyTruth had become known as the small nonprofit with a big-picture view of the world. Environmental organizations had been coming to us for help solving challenging problems with remote sensing. We had become a trusted source for unbiased analysis and indisputable imagery that revealed what was once invisible. So when we were asked to turn our analysis to the issue of commercial fishing far out at sea, it was a natural fit.

In 2012, Pew Charitable Trust’s Global Ocean Legacy program was encouraging conservation in the rich and diverse waters of Easter Island Province, a remote territory of Chile located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, about 2,500 west of the mainland. Hoping to demonstrate the need for protection and the feasibility of monitoring, they looked to us for a solution.

Satellite photographs of illegal fishing in the area would have easily made the point, but such photos don’t exist. Contrary to common belief, no one is actually taking high resolution, fine-scale images of the entire world at all times. So we had to come up with a new method of looking at fishing behavior far over the horizon.

Using low-resolution satellite radar images, we detected the presence of ships in the water based on the radar reflectivity of their metal hulls. Then we learned to work with radio signals broadcast via the Automatic Identification System (AIS) used by many ships to avoid collisions at sea. Combining the data, our analysis showed that fishing was occurring in the open ocean right up to the edge of Chile’s territorial waters. It also revealed that not all fishing vessels were broadcasting their presence with AIS. That was enough to demonstrate that Chilean waters could be vulnerable to unscrupulous fishing behavior, and the Chilean government subsequently stationed a long-range reconnaissance airplane on Easter Island to monitor activity in the area. With that project, we quickly realized the power of AIS data to identify and track fishing activity over the horizon and out of sight. And that’s where the vision began.

Making Headlines: We’re On to Something!

It’s been a little more than two years since we first demonstrated the Global Fishing Watch prototype in public, and the media coverage hasn’t stopped. Since launching the prototype we’ve been featured in more than 100 publications on six continents, from the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal and International Business Times to media outlets in Russia, China, France, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and more. The attention is not only exciting, but extremely encouraging. Our Chief Technology Officer, Paul Woods, puts it this way; “The fact that you have so many people talking about Global Fishing Watch, a product that isn’t even available yet, is an indicator that there is a huge unmet need. There is a need for something that doesn’t exist yet.” In February, 2016, an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine opened with a cinematic recounting of one particular day in our offices.

Late on a January 2015 evening in Shepherdstown, W.Va., a data analyst named Bjorn Bergman, surrounded by whiteboards scribbled with computer code, was orchestrating a high-stakes marine police chase halfway around the world.-Palau vs. the Poachers, NY Times Magazine.

The story, which focused on illegal fishing, went on to describe the coordination of an international effort to track and capture the Shin Jyi Chyuu 33, a vessel we had discovered fishing without permission in the waters of Palau. Other media coverage has included commentary in National Geographic Voices, by conservation technologist and Emerging Explorer Shah Selbe who wrote:

The methods that we traditionally relied upon (to manage marine reserves) can no longer meet these protection needs, so there currently exists a massive demand for new tools and fresh ideas. . . The Global Fishing Watch prototype looks to be a great tool, and a strong step in the right direction when it comes to ocean information.

In a feature article in WIRED, W. Wayt Gibbs wrote:

Large commercial fishers are about to get a new set of overseers: conservationists—and soon the general public—armed with space-based reconnaissance of the global fleet. . . . now environmentalists are using sophisticated technology of their own to peel away that cloak of invisibility.

In addition to filling an unmet need, as Paul described, our partnerships with globally recognized leaders Google and Oceana have helped launch us into the headlines at a time of rising awareness and excitement for protecting our ocean resources. In the past three years alone, high-profile celebrities and philanthropic organizations such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul Allen, the Packard Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have collectively contributed tens of millions of dollars to ocean conservation and fisheries management. Political recognition for ocean issues has also gained momentum in recent years. In 2008, the United Nations officially recognized June 8th as World Oceans Day, and in February 2014 by President Obama established of the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in the central Pacific Ocean.

“It’s great to see that people agree with us that this is a big deal,” says Paul, noting that it’s more than just a shot in the spotlight. We know what we’re doing is exciting, and we know it’s important, but a part of what’s so valuable about Global Fishing Watch lies in the crowdsourcing capability. Media attention like this is the best recruitment tool for users who are going to help elevate this platform to become one of the most robust resources for monitoring commercial fishing on the world’s oceans. We’re excited to see that happen. Below is a brief selection of the many articles that have featured Global Fishing Watch.

2016 (January-April)

Business Wire: Global Fishing Watch Enables Clear View of Fishing in Marine Protected Areas
Yale Environment 360: How Satellites and Big Data Can Help to Save the Oceans
Christian Science Monitor: SkyTruth spots environmental problems from space
Wall Street Journal: Indonesia Takes Explosive Approach to Illegal Fishing
New York Times Sunday Magazine: Palau Vs. the Poachers

2015

National Geographic: Tiny Team Uses Satellites to Bust Illegal Fishing Worldwide
National Geographic:11 Ways Technology Stops Crime Against Endangered Animals
EcoWatch: 15 Huge Ocean Conservation Victories of 2015
The Guardian: To catch a fishing thief, SkyTruth uses data from the air, land and sea
GovInsider: Open Dataset of the Week: Illegal fishing in Indonesia
Jakarta Post: Government Set to Improve Commercial Fishing Transparency
Fast Company: Inside The Satellite Detective Agencies That Catch The Companies Destroying The Planet—From Space
New York Times: Mapping the World’s Problems
Christian Science Monitor: How to free modern slaves: Three tech solutions that are working Part 5 of a series on human trafficking: Includes discussion of how GFW can combat slavery in Thailand’s fishing industry. “ . . . Outside of government, one of the most ambitious initiatives launched in recent years is Global Fishing Watch, an online platform that uses…”

2014

Wall Street Journal: Google, Partners Target Illegal Fishing with New Technology
Wired: The Plan to Map Illegal Fishing from Space
The Atlantic: Tracking Fishy Behavior from Space
PRI/BCC “The World”: (Radio) Google is teaming up with environmental groups to help fight illegal fishing
CNN: (Video): New Tool Monitors “Pirate” Fishing Boats
CBSN:CBS News: New System to Combat Global Overfishing
Bloomberg: Commercial Fishing Far Out Sea & Over the Horizon – Until Now
Forbes: Google Helps Map Illegal Fishing
Examiner.com: Setting the Watchdogs on Illegal Fishing with Global Fishing Watch
International Business Times: Google-Backed Satellite Project Aims To Track, Eliminate Illegal Fishing Around The World
Maritime Executive: New Google Tool to Track Global Fisheries: “Global Fishing Watch provides an unprecedented view of human interaction with the ocean”

Ending Hide & Seek at Sea: Global Fishing Watch in Science

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), located in the central Pacific between Hawaii and Australia, is the world’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spanning a swath of ocean roughly the size of California, its hosts a series of isolated seamounts and almost entirely uninhabited islands, all supporting rich, largely unspoiled ecosystems.

On January 1st of 2015, this unique park was officially closed to industrial fishing. But given that the protected area is so huge and isolated, how can we possibly monitor such a park and be sure that that fishing vessels are staying out?

In previous posts, we showed how Global Fishing Watch has done exactly that—verifying that most fishing vessels are following the new regulations in the Phoenix Islands. Today, in the prestigious journal Science, members of the Global Fishing Watch team outline in more detail how this monitoring was possible, and we make policy recommendations that will improve our ability to monitor the rest of the world’s oceans.

The key technology behind Global Fishing Watch is AIS – the “Automatic Identification System” that almost all large ocean-going vessels are required to carry. AIS transponders broadcast a vessel’s location and identity every few seconds to every few minutes. The system was originally designed as a ship-to-ship collision-avoidance system, but now we can use it to track, via satellite, the movements of large fishing vessels across the globe. In the Science paper we outline the strengths and weaknesses of using AIS to track fishing effort.

To get a sense of what we can see using AIS, we created the map below, which shows the movements of all vessels in the world that carry AIS in 2015. To produce this map we processed four and a half billion data points from over 200,000 vessels.

Out of these roughly 200,000 vessels, more than 35,000 are commercial fishing vessels whose movements we can track and analyze. Global Fishing Watch has developed algorithms—and is working to refine these algorithms—that use the movements of fishing vessels to estimate when and where the vessels are placing their hooks and nets. In the paper we show that in the central Pacific, the fishing estimate of our algorithms correlates very well with official, direct observations of fishing.

 

We then used these algorithms to estimate the fishing activity in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area before and after the closure. Below is a video that shows how the fishing vessels cleared out of the marine reserve. The yellow and white heat map shows the intensity of fishing effort as measured by Global Fishing Watch. In 2014, the park was heavily fished; in 2015, there was almost no fishing.


Today, also using PIPA as a case study, our partners at Oceana published their own report on the role of Global Fishing Watch in fisheries management and monitoring. 

As we make clear in the paper, AIS is not perfect. It is used primarily by large vessels, and is thus better for monitoring fishing on the high seas than in small artisanal fisheries. Also, mixed regulations means that in some regions of the world almost all fishing vessels carry AIS, while in others only a few vessels do. Nonetheless, this technology is an enormous leap forward, and in recent years, more countries are requiring more vessels to carry AIS. As the paper describes, “hide and seek” on the world’s oceans may be coming to an end.

Update on Fishing Fleet at MH370 Search Site

I would like to provide an update on our post from earlier this month on the Fu Yuan Yu Fleet appearing near the search site for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. We were puzzled to see a large number of fishing vessels at this remote location. Since our post we have received information indicating that these vessels are licensed Chinese fishing vessels targeting small pelagic species.

The Fu Yuan Yu fleet now appears just south of the area being surveyed by MH370 search vessels Fugro Equator and Fugro Discovery. The Liao Chang Yu Yun 88 can be seen headed north after spending two weeks with the fleet. This Chinese flagged vessel is likely a fish carrier.
If as reported the Fu Yuan Yu vessels 070, 071, 072, 073, 075, 076 are targeting small pelagic species (not tuna) then they would not need to be licensed by an RFMO (Regional Fishery Management Organization) in the Indian Ocean. However we are still curious about the fishing methods of this fleet, described as lightning purse seiners. The lightning presumably refers to use of light attraction in their fishing operation. 

Each parent vessel appears to be associated with a string of 5 or 6 AIS beacons attached to some type of gear. The vessel and gear can be drifting and strung out in a 30 mile string as seen in the recent screenshots below. Or at other times each parent vessel and set of associated gear is in the same location. This pattern made us think of setting and retrieving a longline but these vessels have now been reported as purse seiners so the fishing operation is puzzling. Below you will see track for one of the fishing vessels, Fu Yuan Yu 070, as well as what we assume is a piece of associated fishing gear (070 04). The two tracks can be seen to overlay closely. We are looking for further information to clarify the fishing operation taking place.

 
The track of the Fu Yuan Yu 070 (black dashed line) over three days. Other vessels of the Fu Yuan Yu Fleet also appear to the south each with string of what is assumed to be associated fishing gear extending southeast about 30 km. All vessels have been described as lighting purse seiners.

 

Here is shown the three day track of one of presumed pieces of fishing gear associated with the Fu Yuan Yu 070. The track has fewer broadcast AIS positions but it can be seen to closely follow that of the parent vessel. 

Unusual Vessel Behavior in the MH370 Search Area

Over the past month we’ve been watching an unusual Chinese fleet in a remote area of the Southern Indian Ocean. These vessels identify themselves as fishing but were not found in any public fishing registry and appear almost 500 miles distant from the nearest known fishing vessels.


This self-identified fishing fleet is currently operating in very close proximity to vessels searching for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370). This fleet, with vessels broadcasting the name Fu Yuan Yu, has been in the general search area over the past month but today appears within several miles of the MH370 search vessel Havila Harmony.


We’ve shared vessel tracks of the Fu Yuan Yu fleet with members of several regional fisheries management organizations but so far no one has been able to confirm the activity of the fleet though all agree that the location is unusual for fishing vessels. We’d be very interested to hear from anyone who can confirm the identity of these vessels (Fu Yuan Yu 70, 71, 72, 73, 75, 76) and explain their activity in this unusual location.


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The three MH370 search vessels (small circles) are shown near to the Chinese Fu Yuan Yu Fleet. Vessels of the Fu Yuan Yu fleet identify themselves as fishing but this remote location is not a known fishing area. The nearest confirmed fishing vessels (light blue) are about 500 miles to the the north and to the west.


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The MH370 search vessel Havila Harmony, flagged to Malaysia, currently appears surrounded by a Chinese fleet whose activity in the area is unclear. Fu Yuan Yu vessels identify themselves as fishing though this could not be confirmed by registry or port records. Each vessel appear to be trailed by a string of five or six points (red triangles), probably some sort of gear associated with the parent vessel.

 

Fu Yuan Yu vessels appear to make up a major global fishing fleet with over 120 vessels broadcasting with that name. Three Fu Yuan Yu vessels (numbers 013, 997,998) are currently authorized by the IOTC (Indian Ocean Tuna Commission) to target tuna in the Indian Ocean. Since the Fu Yuan Yu vessels we are observing here are not registered with the IOTC they could not target tuna but it’s not clear that there is another likely target species. Normally vessel registry records, like those issued by the IOTC and other regional fisheries management organizations, would allow us to confirm a fishing vessel’s identity and get details on the vessel’s operation, such as the fishing gear they employ. However no such information has been found for the Fu Yuan Yu vessels appearing in the MH370 search area.

SkyTruth Data Analysis Aids Fishing Slavery Investigation


“They got it!!”

Late in the afternoon on July 14, an investigative journalist from the Associated Press (AP) informed SkyTruth that over three months of research, behavioral analysis, and satellite vessel tracking had culminated in photographic evidence of a refrigerated cargo ship receiving transshipments at sea from fishing vessels believed to be crewed by slave labor.  [UPDATE: On August 12, the Silver Sea 2 was seized and brought to shore by the Indonesian Navy, pending further investigation.]

Detail from WorldView-3 satellite image showing two fishing trawlers tied up to the refrigerated cargo vessel Silver Sea 2 in the waters of Papua New Guinea on July 14, 2015. The cargo holds are open, suggesting that the ship is receiving catch from these trawlers implicated in slave labor.  Credit: DigitalGlobe/AP

Thanks to daring investigative journalism supported by data-driven intelligence from SkyTruth, the lawlessness of the high seas has recently been making major headlines.  In March, the AP published the results of a year-long investigation that revealed slave-caught seafood in the supply chains of major American supermarkets. Their stories traced the repatriation of one Myanmar fisherman after 22 years separated from his family, and prompted the rescue of hundreds of migrant fishermen from captivity on remote Indonesian islands. Last month, in a tour-de-force of international journalism, the New York Times exposed the contemptible track record of the Dona Liberta, a name-changing, flag-switching cargo ship that we observed spilling oil off the coast of Angola back in 2012. The Times investigation also explored slavery, murder, and poaching on the high seas in their four-part series The Outlaw Ocean.In April, SkyTruth began monitoring more than half a dozen vessels suspected to be involved in the trafficking and enslavement of Burmese migrants on fishing boats working the sea off Southeast Asia. 

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© murphygodzilla

Through careful analysis of satellite-derived vessel location data over a six-month period, we were able to help the AP acquire the satellite image above, capturing an apparent transshipment at sea, where fish are transferred from one vessel to another. Many of the fishing vessels we are interested in are exempt from broadcasting their location via the Automatic Identification System (AIS), but because they stay at sea for months at a time, must regularly offload their catch to refrigerated cargo ships (also known as “reefers”) like the Silver Sea 2. For safety reasons, large ships including reefers are required by international law to broadcast their identity, location and speed via AIS, giving us a way to catch a glimpse of the shadowy world of transshipments at sea.

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April 2015 – Silver Sea 2 completes a circuit through the ‘Dog Leg’ region of the Papua New Guinea EEZ. Three months later, DigitalGlobe would capture an image of the Silver Sea 2 in almost exactly the same location, receiving catch from suspect fishing vessels.  Credit: AIS data from exactEarth and ORBCOMM; map by SkyTruth.


For three weeks the Silver Sea 2 lingered in a region of Papua New Guinea’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) called the Dog Leg. During this time, the reefer stopped broadcasting its location and was presumably receiving shipments of seafood from trawlers operating in the area. On May 17, the Silver Sea 2 turned its AIS transponder back on and headed west, destined for Indonesia and Thailand. Looking back in time, we found evidence of two other Silver Sea reefers making this same circuit. Armed with intelligence that revealed a predictable pattern, our team was optimistic that we might be able to get a satellite snapshot of the “Dark Fleet” that was offloading fish to the Silver Sea reefers. 

Intentionally collecting a high-resolution satellite image of a fishing boat underway at sea is difficult. Transshipments, however, are another story:  reefers are stationary, or moving very slowly and predictably, for hours to days at a time while they receive catch from vessels in the area. There is still a possibility that clouds could obscure the target, or no fishing vessels are alongside at the moment the satellite flies overhead, but the odds of success are better.


460xOn July 13th we notified AP that
Silver Sea 2 was returning, following the same pattern we observed in April. Another Thai reefer, the Sea Network, was also anchored in this coastal transshipment area. With two reefers likely transshiping catch, the time was ripe to go for it. Later that day, the WorldView-3 satellite collected an image of Silver Sea 2 rendezvousing with two vessels believed to be part of the slave fleet previously operating out of Benjina.

Silver Sea 2 60 day 8-7 no EEZ

60-day track of the Silver Sea 2, as of August 7, 2015. Image Credit: ShipView from exactEarth.

The Silver Sea 2 is now well under way toward Thailand, but news of this transshipment being spotted by satellite appears to have prompted authorities step up their efforts. Another Thai cargo ship, Blissful Reefer, has been detained and eight more fishermen have been freed from purported slavery at sea.

Where’s the Fishing?

Apparently, off southern South America, it’s just outside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Chile.

Here’s another nighttime DMSP satellite image composite from our friends at NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center (as always, click to see a bigger version). We’ve planted it in Google Earth. It was made by combining three years worth of cloud-free nighttime satellite images, with 2011 displayed in red, 2010 in green and 2009 in blue. Look at the patterns of color out in the ocean, massed against Chile’s EEZ boundary, shown as a green line:

These patterns are probably made by the lights of fishing vessels: cargo ships are in a hurry to get from Port A to Port B, and don’t linger in the open ocean.  There are a variety of fishing restrictions within Chilean waters designed to protect local fishing and fisheries by limiting industrial fishing, but on the high seas beyond the EEZ boundary anything goes.  The fishing within Chile’s territorial waters must be relatively good, because this map shows that fishing vessels are trying to get as close as possible without crossing the line — although if you look closely, you can see indications of repeated incursions into Chilean waters.

Based on a study of Chilean fisheries, we think much of the fishing effort revealed on this image is probably targeting swordfish.