For better or worse, technology is taming the high seas


Tony Long, Global Fishing Watch CEO, considers how new technology is changing our view of the global ocean

Innovative technology is enabling us to see what is happening beyond the horizon as never before, and opening up a new realm of marine science. It is good news for people and planet as long as governments and industry embrace transparency, democratise data and pursue sustainability.

Mind the gap

How much do we currently know about the global ocean? According to the Inter-governmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), not much. Its 2017 Global Ocean Science Report found that only 0.04% to 4% of total research spend worldwide goes to ocean science, and revealed major disparities in different nations’ capacity to conduct research, with Small Island Developing States especially limited.

It has been said that less is known about the seafloor than about the surface of Mars, and these findings throw the major knowledge gaps hampering marine governance into stark relief.

In response, the UN has designated 2021–2030 as the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, aiming to strengthen international cooperation on research and innovation, restore ocean health and deliver the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This is a welcome development. Without good science, technology transfer, ocean literacy and well-informed decision-making, we will never achieve the clean, safe, open, healthy, productive and resilient ocean we need for our future prosperity.

Here be dragons

Yet the high seas present perhaps the biggest management challenge of all the global commons. Still akin to areas marked apocryphally on old maritime charts as ‘Here be dragons’, they are effectively lawless – a place of abuse and crime, and now degradation.

Largely unseen, a handful of wealthy nations are over-exploiting valuable resources on an industrial scale, threatening the food security of the 3.2 billion people who depend on fish for protein, not to mention the livelihoods of millions of artisanal coastal fishers.

Accounting for 20% of the global catch, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing robs governments and legitimate fishing communities of seafood, and inadequate governance reduces fisheries production by $83 billion annually.

According to the recent Inter- governmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, humanity has significantly altered two-thirds of the marine environment, and 93% of all fish stocks are fished at either maximum sustainable or unsustainable levels.

And while the global fishing fleet increased from 1.7 million to 3.7 million boats between 1950 and 2015, for the amount of effort expended, the average catch fell more than 80%.

After centuries of taking the ocean’s bounty for granted, we are running up against its limits.

Dawn of the digital ocean

Global Fishing Watch’s new ‘Encounters’ layer
Global Fishing Watch’s new ‘Encounters’ layer, developed with machine learning, reveals meetings between vessels at sea – often an indication of illegal activity. As the map shows, many such meetings occur in international waters.

The good news is that the long-hidden global ocean is now quickly coming into view. New technologies powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution are driving a data and information revolution that is set to fill the knowledge gap and transform our understanding and management of the ocean.

A rapid proliferation of sensors carried by new generation satellites, ocean-going drones, buoys and boats is producing a flood of new data. On the back of this, new processing technologies are unlocking powerful new insights. Once blind, we can now see with ever-increasing clarity what is happening both on and in the water.

At Global Fishing Watch (GFW), we are harnessing this revolution to offer governments, communities, industry and civil society the tools and insights they need to better monitor fishing activity, manage ocean resources for sustainability, and drive transparency and accountability in markets and business.

Using the sort of technology previously only available to intelligence agencies, and at a fraction of the cost, we apply machine learning to vessel GPS data – more than 60 million points of information per day – to determine which vessels are fishing when and where, as well as what type of gear they are using. This allows us to flag up suspicious activity.

This deceptively simple achievement alone has enormous potential to improve ocean management and conservation, most of which is yet to be realised.

Research revolution

The fishing data revolution we’ve helped to unleash has triggered a wider scientific revolution, unlocking previously unavailable research opportunities and spurring innovation. In the last two years, our research partners have published over 20 scientific papers that are making the unknown known and transforming our understanding and management of fisheries.

For example, the first ever public database of global fishing activity, based on our analysis of vessel movements, has helped make the case for seven new marine protected areas with a combined area larger than Egypt. Detailed modelling of the economics of high seas fishing is informing World Trade Organization reform of $20 billion in subsidies that are driving overfishing. In addition, the first ever global database of transshipments is helping the US Coast Guard tackle human trafficking and IUU fishing.

A light in the dark

And there is more to come. Using multiple satellite technologies, including high resolution imaging, radar and night-time light detection, we are increasingly able to track the world’s ‘dark fleet’ – those vessels that don’t broadcast their position using standard tracking systems. Combined with advanced vessel monitoring algorithms, this new dark fleet dataset will show the true scale of global fishing and reveal IUU fishing hotspots.

In parallel, we are also developing a high-resolution global map of IUU fishing risk with a focus on forced labour violations that will help authorities deploy limited resources more effectively. Our new map will help identify when and why vessels turn off tracking systems and support modelling of transshipment operations, linking owners to risky vessels and revealing risky fleets.

In addition, new models and tools for tracking fishing that go beyond simple measures of ‘hours fished’ and account for numbers of hooks or nets set, combined with electronic and traditional logbook data, as well as environmental and species movement data, will enable us to map which high seas fleets are targeting which species, and estimate transshipments as well as fish and marine animal impacts.

Conscious choice

Outlaw vessel Nika
The arrest in summer 2019 of the outlaw vessel Nika by Indonesian patrol craft. Notorious for over a decade, the vessel, which has operated under many flags, came to UK attention when it hit an iceberg near South Georgia (the damage is evident in the photo). With the help of Global Fishing Watch, Nika was then tracked for several months until it was in a position to be arrested within the Indonesian EEZ. Photo: Regina Safri

Ten years from now, we will be able to monitor all of the world’s two-million-plus fishing vessels, and in theory, be able to eradicate IUU fishing, verify sustainable fisheries management and effectively enforce marine protected areas.

Yet simply because we can, does not mean we will. Most world experts in resource conservation, economics, policy and biology – the people who know the most about the challenges we need to address – often lack access to proprietary data as well as the capacity and financial resources to conduct analysis.

While the technology wave brings new hope for marine conservation and the global commons, harnessing the opportunities for good must be a conscious choice.

Governments, businesses and investors must embrace transparency, democratise data and pursue sustainability, enabling experts, the fishing industry, communities and NGOs to participate in decision-making and create new solutions.

For better or worse

If we do not make this choice, we risk exacerbating existing threats. The history of technology in the ocean gives us cause for caution. As innovation enables ever more intensive exploitation, the weaknesses of current governance are ever more apparent. And with more and more fishing vessels chasing fewer fish – current trends suggest a million more vessels on the water by 2050 – we face a serious problem.

The technology revolution demands engagement from us all – good governance from governments responsible for the resources, transparency from the companies exploiting them and collaboration from the communities that rely on them. It needs application and interpretation from the scientists and researchers who produce new knowledge and understanding, and partnership on solutions from the NGOs that fight for the wellbeing of our global commons.

A pillar of the UN Decade of Ocean Science is open access to data and technology. Our mission at Global Fishing Watch is making trustworthy data and analysis freely available to as many countries, communities and resource managers as possible.

Let us all commit to realising the promise of the coming decade. Working together, we can deliver the stewardship that SDG 14 demands, securing the ocean we need for the future we want.