From Net to Plate: Technology Shines a Light on Global Fishing Activityby John Amos, President, SkyTruthAugust 5th, 2015

From Net to Plate: Technology Shines a Light on Global Fishing Activity

Screenshot of Global Fishing Watch showing 2 years worth of AIS-detected fishing effort.

The food-buying public, particularly in wealthier nations, is increasingly asking more questions about the food we’re eating:  How is it produced?  Who is involved?  and — the most basic of questions — Where does it come from?  This is motivated by concerns about diet and health, the environmental impacts of food production, and the wellbeing of workers.  This trend extends to the seafood industry as well:  growing concern about how fisheries are being managed, amplified by shocking news stories about illegal fishing and slavery in the fishing industry,  is focusing consumer and regulator attention on where, and how, our fish are being caught.

It’s a watershed moment for the global seafood industry:  failure to act quickly and effectively to address these concerns head-on, will run the risk of turning off consumers, alienating politicians and regulators, attracting legal problems and low-level hassles, and experiencing more frequent and costly supply chain disruptions.

But the seafood trade is complicated.  Fishing vessels leave port and disappear over the horizon for months at a time, and the interested public is left to wonder where those vessels go, and if they follow the rules; while scientists and managers wonder if catch is being transferred through rendezvous at sea with other vessels, and if those transfers are being accurately reported.  And when the fishers eventually return and their catch is offloaded, a host of middlemen are involved in moving that seafood to markets around the world.

Partly spurred by consumer anger over seafood fraud, great strides are being made in tracking seafood from port to plate, as it moves through the wholesale and retail chain to end up in a customer’s shopping cart or on a restaurant menu.  But until recently, the net to port segment of the supply chain has remained relatively opaque.  Innovative public applications of not-so-new technology are finally helping shine a light on exactly when, and where, fishing vessels are putting their gear in the water to catch fish.


Many ships at sea use the Automatic Identification System to navigate safely.  AIS radio-frequency broadcasts identify a vessel, its location, speed, heading, destination and other information designed to help avoid collisions.  Large vessels, including most commercial cargo ships, chemical tankers and passenger ships, are required to use AIS.  Most fishing vessels are not, although this is changing as governments and fisheries management organizations are realizing the safety and management benefits of mandatory AIS.

Although AIS was designed and built for ship-to-ship communication on the water, the signals can be collected by orbiting satellites carrying AIS receivers.  AIS broadcasts are considered public and open, and can be legally collected and used by anyone.  Governments and private companies are building and launching AIS satellites to monitor vessel traffic and sell processed AIS data and analyses.  We’re confident that within a few years there will be global, continuous, real-time AIS collection from space covering the entire ocean.

At SkyTruth, we’ve been using AIS data since 2011 to monitor the activity of vessels far out at sea. By analyzing the patterns of movement of a vessel – particularly changes in speed and direction – we can identify exactly when and where vessels are deploying or retrieving their fishing gear. Occasionally we detect unauthorized fishing activity, helping countries to more effectively police their waters.  But we think this information will also be useful to help scientists directly measure fishing effort; to inform decisionmakers and regulators as they design policies to ensure sustainability; and to ensure seafood buyers and consumers that the fish they’re buying were caught legitimately. That’s why we formed a partnership in 2014 with Oceana and Google to create  Global Fishing Watch, which will feature a free, public, continuously updated global map of all the commercial fishing activity we can detect from analyzing the daily cloud of AIS broadcasts.  This is truly a big-data automation problem: for the prototype we unveiled in November, we analyzed 3.8 billion AIS broadcasts collected from space over a two-year period.  And that represents just the tip of the iceberg compared with what’s coming soon.

Other organizations are also working to apply AIS to help solve the intertwined problems of overfishing and IUU (illegal, unregulated and unreported) fishing.  Project Eyes on the Seas is an ambitious effort by The Pew Charitable Trusts to assist governments in identifying and prosecuting illegal fishing. With their Transparent Seas Project, World Wildlife Fund seeks to engage directly with fishermen.  Other initiatives will surely emerge as AIS use becomes more broadly required, and AIS data more readily available.

To some in the fishing industry, these developments may be unwelcome:   after all, what successful fisherman wants their competitors to learn their favorite fishing spots?  But we think it’s likely that competing foreign fleets have been using AIS tracking for years, to keep tabs on their vessels — and keep track of their competitors’ whereabouts.  We hope that proactive fishers will take advantage of this technology-driven wave of transparency, to show fisheries managers, seafood buyers and consumers that they’re the ones who are playing by the rules.

The rewards for those who embrace openness?  Fewer day-to-day hassles from the authorities as countries increasingly cooperate to isolate and clamp down on untraceable vessels. Privileged access to high-value markets as seafood buyers turn away from suppliers who won’t publicly validate the legitimacy of their operation.  And the long-term sustainability of supply chains that clearly and consistently demonstrate net to plate integrity.

About SkyTruth: SkyTruth is a nonprofit organization using remote sensing and digital mapping to create stunning images that expose the landscape disruption and habitat degradation caused by mining, oil and gas drilling, deforestation, fishing and other human activities. John Amos founded SkyTruth in 2001.