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.

[Updated] Fishing Fleet at MH370 Search Site May Have Moved North

Vessels in the Fu Yuan Yu fleet previously seen near the MH370 search site suddenly disappeared from our monitoring system last week as the entire fleet and associated fishing gear stopped broadcasting AIS. One of the vessels has now reappeared, the Fu Yuan Yu 076 is giving a current location in the Bay of Bengal near India. However looking at the vessel’s track over the past three months there is good reason to be skeptical. While the vessel showed a likely fishing track they appeared in a very unlikely location, the mountains of Tibet.

What we see is in fact a latitude reversal where a vessel’s position in the Southern Hemisphere is flipped over the Equator to appear in the Northern Hemisphere. This is one of a number of patterns of false AIS locations we have documented. We’re not sure if these simply result from errors in transmission or if the vessel operator intends to make his vessel difficult to track. Fortunately we have developed some tools to pick these false locations out of our data and correct them. The reappearance today of what is likely a beacon attached to the vessel’s fishing gear (identifying as Fu Yuan Yu 076 08) with a mirror track in the Southern Hemisphere is very strong evidence that this is also the true location of the parent fishing vessel.

The vessel’s latest positions show them moving on an irregular course at slow speed so it’s possible that they have resumed fishing at this new location. Though we can’t see any of the other vessels in the Fu Yuan Yu fleet there is a good chance they are nearby. We’ll see if any of them reappear in the next few days.

Fu Yuan Yu 76 and gear 3-2-16
Here are seen two AIS tracks over the past 3 months. The fishing vessel Fu Yuan Yu 076 broadcasting an impossible location on land in the Northern Hemisphere and the associated Fu Yuan Yu 076 08 (likely fishing gear) mirroring the track but in the Southern Hemisphere. The track of the Fu Yuan Yu 076 08 confirms our suspicion that the true location of the parent vessel can be found by reversing the latitude of their broadcast positions. While none of the other vessels in the fleet can be located it may be that the group has moved north to this new location.  

 

 

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.