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Now you can watch every large fishing boat in the ocean (and a few illegal ones, too)

Every day, tens of thousands of large fishing boats scour the ocean in search of seafood. And some of them end up fishing illegally, sneaking into areas where they’re not supposed to go.

A massive new project, Global Fishing Watch, lets you track all of these boats in near real time. This is the world’s fishing industry in action, hauling in hundreds of thousands of tons of fish each day:

(Global Fishing Watch)

This map is a collaboration between the conservation group Oceana and the nonprofit SkyTruth, using Google's mapping software to track the world’s 35,000 largest fishing vessels. You can zoom in, go back in time, and watch fishing activity all over the world. (There’s a lag of 72 hours, but the data goes back to 2012.)

The project's creators hope the tool can be used to catch boats that are operating illegally, to help crack down on overfishing and the collapse of global fish populations. If, for instance, journalists or researchers spot a vessel operating in a protected marine area or a "no take" zone, that could end up leading to an investigation by law enforcement or regulators. You can play around with the full map here and find a tutorial on how to use the tool here.

"Citizens can see for themselves how their fisheries are being effectively managed and hold leaders accountable for long-term sustainability," the project’s website notes. "Seafood suppliers can monitor the vessels they buy fish from. Journalists and the public can act as watchdogs to improve the sustainable management of global fisheries. Responsible fishermen can show they are adhering to the law."

How to track illegal fishing boats from space

Overfishing has become a major problem in many parts of the world. Commercial boats have now become so skilled at catching fish — using sonar, GPS, and other technologies — that some fisheries are being harvested unsustainably.

Worldwide, some 31.4 percent of assessed fish populations are now overexploited, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. And that's starting to have adverse effects. Between 1996 and 2016, the global wild marine catch has stagnated, as humans work harder and harder to catch fewer fish. Fish farming has had to make up the gap:

(UN FAO, State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016)

Countries have tried to alleviate this problem by placing limits on fishing, either by setting quotas on catches or by protecting certain areas to allow fish populations to recover. But many of these rules get undermined by fishing boats operating illegally. Boats that operate in restricted areas, ignore quotas, catch prohibited species, or misreport their catches cost the industry an estimated $23 billion per year. And because the ocean is so vast, these boats are hard to catch — or even see.

So that's where Global Fishing Watch comes in. As Oceana explained in a 2014 report laying out the project, all large vessels on the ocean are required to use an Automatic Identification System (AIS) that broadcasts the ship's identity, location, and so forth. The project's creators developed an algorithm that analyzed these boats' movements and could figure out which boats were fishing boats.

The system isn't perfect yet, and the algorithms are still being improved. It sometimes mistakes other vessels for fishing boats. It can't currently track smaller boats that aren't required to use the AIS. (Oceana has called on the International Maritime Organization to expand the system to smaller vessels.) Another problem: Occasionally the AIS system reports a false location, either accidentally or because the crew is tampering with the system to mask illegal activity. The Global Fishing Watch team is currently working to identify these boats and find ways to reveal their true location.

Despite these limitations, having this data can be valuable. It allows anyone to see if, say, a large trawler or longliner is operating in a protected marine area or an area where it doesn't have a license. The system can also track when boats mysteriously turn off their AIS signals — in case they’re trying to hide.

Were these boats fishing illegally?

In its 2014 report, Oceana gives a few examples of how its mapping system can help track suspicious fishing behavior.

Throughout 2013, for instance, five different Russian trawlers appeared to enter the protected Dzhugdzhursky State Nature Reserve — a refuge for salmon that's supposed to be a "no take" area. Yet in September, the Russian trawler Komarovo appeared to be making movements consistent with fishing:


Another map caught a ship operating in Fiji's exclusive economic zone. The Ugulan, a longliner, was not in the registry to fish in this area. But it also appeared to be making movements consistent with fishing:


Granted, all this data is from 2013, so it's impossible to know for certain what these boats were actually doing. But these examples help demonstrate how the system can be used going forward, now that the project provides near real-time updates.

This isn't the first time satellite mapping is being used for environmental purposes. One of the groups behind the project, SkyTruth, has also used satellite data to track the size of the BP oil spill in 2010 and keep tabs on natural gas flaring in North Dakota.

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