How Google tracked illegal fishing over 1.4 billion square miles of ocean

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How Google tracked illegal fishing over 1.4 billion square miles of ocean

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We know the dangers of unregulated commercial fishing and the devastating effects of overfishing. These practices, executed by large commercial fishing boats have been able to conveniently fly under the radar: until now.

In the wake of World Environment Day earlier this month, Google released an impressive and detailed account of its work with two non-profits, using advanced technology to track boats in remote waters where overfishing is rampant.  Google teamed up with SkyTruth, a non-profit focused on satellite-based environmental monitoring, and Oceana, the world’s largest non-profit dedicated solely to the oceans, to monitor and prosecute vessels found in protected areas.

The Global Fishing Watch,” as the three parties named themselves, was successful in 2016 in reprimanding a commercial fishing boat in the protected waters of Kiribati, an Island Nation in the central Pacific Ocean (located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia). Kiribati has a total land area of 800 square kilometers and the islands are dispersed over 3.5 million square kilometers of ocean.

Kiribati’s surrounding waters are now protected by the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), which means it’s now in a no-fishing zone. PIPA encompasses 408,520 square kilometers of some of the world’s most fertile tuna fishing waters.

In June 205, a large commercial fishing vessel was spotted in the PIPA of Kiribati. The government sent an enforcement vessel out from the capital to investigate the remote region – taking four days to arrive. When officials reached the boat, the captain of the multimillion-dollar fishing vessel denied he was fishing there and invited the nation to take his company to court. He didn’t think they had the proof or resources to be prosecuted, but he was wrong.

Thanks to the technology The Global Fishing Watch created, officials were able to show the caption the tracking movements of his ship, which were the distinctive circular motions used by large fishing trawlers. The captain quickly decided to settle instead of going to court.

The creation of the technology is fascinating. In the 1990s, large ships started to use a technology called Automatic Identification System (AIS), a GPS tool for vessels, as a safety mechanism so ships would know each other’s locations.

By 2013, the EU and U.S. required AIS on commercial vessels and satellites started to collect these signals over the ocean. By late 2013, roughly 250,000 boats could be monitored by satellite, even in remote parts of the ocean. SkyTruth then collaborated with Google, demonstrating what they could find with humans looking at the AIS data and tracking for fishing patterns in no-fishing zones. They soon were able to digitalize the process using Google’s algorithms, and The Global Fishing Watch is now a tool that any country can use to track commercial vessels in their waters.

This is an incredible example of using innovation to solve the problems that affect our oceans and our local fishing communities. At CSF, our initiatives fall in line with the push for sustainable fishing and we will continue to help find and provide solutions to save our oceans.

Interested in learning more, or investing in the future of our fishery? Please contact us here.


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