NASA Earth Observatory image modified by SkyTruth

Fishing Affects Area Four Times Larger Than Agriculture

NASA Earth Observatory image modified by SkyTruth


For immediate release: February 22, 2018

Shepherdstown, WV — In a study published today in the journal Science, researchers from SkyTruth, Global Fishing Watch, the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project, University of California Santa Barbara, Dalhousie University, Google, and Stanford University analyzed satellite tracking data to reveal that the footprint of industrial fishing in the ocean is over four times larger than the land area occupied by agriculture. Among the key findings:

  • Commercial fishing activity covers more than 55 percent of the ocean’s surface.

  • When and where fishing occurs, it is tied more to politics and culture than to natural cycles such as climate variation and fish migration.

  • Activity in some regions is clearly bounded by different management regimes, indicating the role well-enforced policy can play in curbing over-exploitation.

  • In 2016 alone over 40 million hours of fishing were observed, and fishing vessels traveled more than 460 million kilometers — the equivalent of traveling to the moon and back 600 times.

SkyTruth’s president, John Amos, said “This new high-resolution analysis of global fishing activity, made possible by the satellite technology and big data at the heart of Global Fishing Watch, provides a stunning illustration of the vast scope of exploitation of the ocean. Now that we can observe and directly measure fishing effort, governments, fishers, the seafood industry and consumers have new tools to manage these important resources, and a strong foundation to build toward sustainability.”

The team used machine learning technology to analyze 22 billion automatic identification system (AIS) messages publicly broadcast from vessels at sea, recording their positions from 2012 through 2016. Based solely on vessel movement patterns, the Global Fishing Watch algorithm was able to identify more than 70,000 commercial fishing vessels, infer what type of fishing they engaged in, and pinpoint where and when they fished.

The study, “Tracking the global footprint of fisheries,” appears in Vol. 361 Issue 6378 of Science. The datasets, including gridded fishing activity data, vessel identity and classification lists, and encounters between refrigerated cargo vessels (reefers) and fishing vessels, spanning from 2012 to three days from the present, are available for download for non-commercial uses via Global Fishing Watch’s Research Accelerator Program.To learn more about the study and to access the data, click here. Our blog post is here.

For images and data visualisations please visit the Global Fishing Watch media center. For media and interview requests, contact Jenny Allen ( 304-885-4581) or John Amos ( 304-260-8886).

For comments by experts not involved in this study, please contact: Daniel Pauly (, Doug McCauley (, or Callum Roberts (

About SkyTruth: SkyTruth is a nonprofit organization using remote sensing and digital mapping to create stunning images that expose the environmental impact of natural resource extraction and other human activities. We use satellite imagery and geospatial data to create compelling and scientifically credible visuals and resources to inform environmental advocates, policy-makers, the media, and the public. Learn more.