Transparency: the key to catching rogue fishers

Transparency: the key to catching rogue fishers

Global Fishing Watch

Tony Long explains how Global Fishing Watch is making effective use of new technology

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a multi-billion-dollar organised crime that endangers marine life, hurts law-abiding fishers, and deceives responsible retailers and well-meaning consumers alike. It continues because it is highly profitable. And it is profitable because illegal fishers currently find it easy to bring their stolen goods into ports, across borders, and onto our store shelves and restaurant menus.

It is important to remember what is at stake: the livelihoods and food security of millions of coastal residents who depend on healthy fish populations and marine ecosystems. Seafood, from both wild and farmed sources, accounts for nearly $143 billion in global trade every year.1 It is the most valuable food commodity in the world, and while many governments, fisheries authorities and conservation groups are making real progress in the fight to reduce IUU fishing and conserve marine ecosystems, there is still much work to be done.

IUU fishing is estimated to account for up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood each year.2 Overfishing, resulting from poor enforcement, a lack of science-based management and inadequate global governance, is estimated to reduce global fisheries production by $83 billion.3 These are alarming figures, and while governments do not always give our ocean the priority it deserves, there is growing ambition at the highest levels.

Ambition for ocean protection

An Indonesian Armed Forces aircraft on patrol in a joint maritime security operation with the Royal Australian Navy, targeted particularly at illegal fishing, and based on shared tactics and surveillance data. Photo: Commonwealth of Australia

Guided by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG-14),4 world leaders are charged with the responsibility of driving the global community toward actionable plans to protect the ocean. SDG- 14 calls for the sustainable use of marine resources, ending IUU fishing and harmful subsidies, science-based fisheries management and the conservation of at least 10% of the world’s coastal and marine areas by 2020. Most recently, historic negotiations were held at the UN in September 2018, the start of a process to agree a treaty to protect the high seas. It has taken fourteen years of discussion at the highest levels to initiate negotiations to protect over half of the planet. It is a sobering thought – but these negotiations simply must not fail.

The Canadian Group of Seven (G7) presidency is building an ocean legacy into the mandate of the Group. The Charlevoix blueprint sets out clear actions for the G7 members to undertake in support of healthy seas and resilient coastal communities.5 The Commonwealth is also placing the ocean high on its agenda after publishing the Blue Charter.6 Of the Commonwealth’s 53 member states, 31 are small-island or developing states, so it is of the utmost importance to have ocean and climate change on their agenda.

Achieving these global ambitions will rely on transparency. It will demand sharing open data, the best use of new and emerging technologies and robust action against illicit actors – all held together by visionary, committed leadership.

Transparency is key

Transparency is crucial for good stewardship of our global ocean – to fight illegal fishing, to protect fish stocks and livelihoods, and to increase the safety and wellbeing of fishers. It has the power to drive success by revealing what is happening across our ocean, making clear who is complying with the rule of law and who is not, who is taking advantage of weak governance and who is profiting from it.

Small-island and developing countries with large ocean resources, in particular, stand to benefit. By embracing transparency in their waters, these nations have a cost-effective way of monitoring vessels that places the burden on the fishers to demonstrate compliance rather than the country to prove illegality.

Transparency is also a growing priority for leading seafood businesses, and important to consumers. And that’s because transparency engenders trust. Without transparency, supply chain traceability risks being compromised and consumers lose confidence in the sustainability and legality of the seafood they purchase.

Through transparency we can create a more complete and interconnected picture of fishing occurring across our global ocean. A picture that transcends national boundaries, connecting the dots and bringing into sight what is happening beyond the horizon, on the high seas.

A spotlight on fishing activity

A screenshot of Global Fishing Watch’s ‘Vessel Encounters’ layer, pinpointing likely instances of transshipping fish at sea. Photo: Global Fishing Watch

Transparency is therefore at the heart of our mission. Global Fishing Watch tracks and visualises global fishing activity, and, in doing so, is able to support more efficient and effective monitoring. Our open-access map takes in multiple sources of vessel monitoring data and reveals fishing activity in near real-time.7

The vessel tracking visualised in the map is based on Automatic Identification System (AIS) data, but we can also use data from other vessel tracking systems, such as the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS). Indonesia has led the way in sharing this traditionally proprietary data in Global Fishing Watch. Our ambition is bring twenty more countries into our map platform within a decade.

We continue to develop the platform. Most recently we added the first-ever ‘live’ global view of likely transshipping at sea – a practice that can mask illegal fishing activity because of patchy monitoring. We are also adding layers of data that allow us to understand what vessels VMS and AIS might be missing. The imagery in our new night-time fishing layer, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is exposing the position of vessels that are hiding from other monitoring systems. This has been particularly useful in monitoring the squid fishers.

Our platform has the power to be transformational for fisheries management. It flips the burden of monitoring. Honest fishers are tracked easily and openly, demonstrating their good track record and compliance. Rogue operators stand out due to their patchy track and activity history, or suspicious behaviour. Monitoring and enforcement becomes more focused on demonstrating compliance, more targeted when pursuing offenders, and therefore less costly.

Trusted travellers at seas

By bringing information into the open we begin to break down the electronic walls that illicit activity can hide behind. More openness allows better application of international regulations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate IUU Fishing, often referred to as PSMA.8 Under this agreement, a country can turn away from port, or bring in for inspection, any vessel it suspects of involvement in IUU fishing. Keeping a vessel at sea that is suspected of illegal fishing is a great way to change behaviours. While at sea with a full hold, it is wasting time and fuel, all of which are a significant cost to operations. A compliant vessel, on the other hand, with a clear and unambiguous vessel history and track, can enter port and be back out at sea. It is like a trusted traveller scheme for fishing vessels.

From the perspective of a former naval officer, unless your vessel is on dedicated fisheries duties in UK waters, you rarely get involved in the realm of fisheries. This is a missed opportunity. A navy should not think of this as fisheries protection. Boardings are not a necessary feature; this is maritime domain awareness and very much the remit of every naval vessel. Many of the waters fished around the globe are in nations that lack enforcement resources. IUU fishing vessels are also often used to transport illicit goods and traffick people. When on watch on the bridge, or in the operations room, a source of information that can quickly verify the legitimacy of a detected vessel is needed. The Royal Navy has had a database of merchant vessels for many years, but no such system exists for fishing vessels. It makes it very difficult to understand whether you are looking at a legitimate fisher or a vessel being used to disguise illicit activity. There is no central, complete or accurate record of fishing vessels. There has been progress at the FAO to establish a global record, but it remains some way off and it has taken an NGO, Trygg Mat Tracking, to establish and maintain a central IUU vessel list.9 The list, and Global Fishing Watch, are filling a void.

The new digital ocean

Global Fishing Watch has a grand vision for healthy, productive, and resilient oceans, where transparent and effective governance of marine resources supports biodiversity and sustainable development. Our ambition within the next ten years is to reveal the vast majority of the world’s commercial fishing activity – capturing some 300,000 of the largest vessels responsible for 75% of the global marine catch – and increase our ability to track more small-scale fishing vessels. We are continuing to invest in revolutionising the ability to monitor and visualise the global commercial fishing fleet while furthering scientific research, boosting the global dialogue on transparency in fisheries, and supporting seafood traceability.

The ocean is essential to our survival, and Global Fishing Watch is committed to being part of the solution, to achieve a healthy, thriving blue planet.


  1. FAO (2018). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018: Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.
  2. Agnew DJ, Pearce J, Pramod G, et al. (2009). Estimating the worldwide extent of illegal fishing. PLOS ONE 4(2): e4570. doi: 10.1371/journal. pone.0004570.
  3. World Bank (2017). Giving oceans a break could generate us$83 billion in additional benefits for fisheries.
  4. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14.
  5. G7 (2018). Charlevoix blueprint for healthy oceans, seas and resilient coastal communities.
  6. Commonwealth Blue Charter.
  7. Global Fishing Watch. Interactive fisheries map.
  8. FAO. Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA).
  9. Trygg Mat Tracking. Combined IUU fishing vessel list.

Tony Long was appointed CEO of Global Fishing Watch in 2017. Previously, he served in the Royal Navy for almost three decades, developing expertise in maritime surveillance, maritime policy and international relations, as well as commanding a minehunter and a frigate. He has an MA in defence studies from King’s College London.