The Global Fishing Watch Project / by Francisco Blaha

The availability of technology makes visualizing problems easier, a "new" player in the "where are the vessels" game, the Global Fishing Watch enables anyone with an Internet connection to see apparent fishing activity anywhere in the ocean in near real-time, for free.

 Visualizing our problem...

Visualizing our problem...

This public beta version of Global Fishing Watch (GFW) is available to anyone with an Internet connection and allows users to monitor when and where commercial “apparent fishing activity" is occurring around the world.

Global Fishing Watch uses data about a vessel’s identity, type, location, speed, direction and more that is broadcast using the Automatic Identification System (AIS) and collected via satellites and terrestrial receivers. AIS was developed for safety/collision-avoidance. It is a maritime navigation safety communications system standardized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) that provides vessel information, including the vessel’s identity, type, position, course, speed, navigational status and other safety-related information automatically to appropriately equipped shore stations, other ships and aircraft; automatically receives such information from similarly fitted ships; monitors and tracks ships; and exchanges data with shore-based facilities.

Is important to understand that AIS is not a specific Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), that is a general term to describe systems that are used in commercial fishing to allow environmental and fisheries regulatory organizations to track and monitor the activities of fishing vessels. They are a key part of monitoring control and surveillance (MCS) programs at national and international levels. VMS may be used to monitor vessels in the territorial waters of a country or a subdivision of a country, or in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nautical miles (370.4 km) from the coasts of many countries. VMS systems are used to improve the management and sustainability of the marine environment, through ensuring proper fishing practices and the prevention of illegal fishing, and thus protect and enhance the livelihoods of fishermen.

The exact functionality of a VMS system and the associated equipment varies with the requirements of the nation of the vessel's registry, and the regional or national water in which the vessel is operating. Within regional and national VMS initiatives there are also sub-divisions which apply different functionality to different vessel categories. Categories may be size or type of vessel or activity.

While is VMS data is mostly restricted to RFMO, RFO, Flag states, etc.  AIS data is freely available, and GFW collects it from vessels that their research has identified as known or possible commercial fishing vessels, and applies a fishing detection algorithm to determine “apparent fishing activity” based on changes in vessel speed and direction. The algorithm classifies each AIS broadcast data point for these vessels as either apparently fishing or not fishing and shows the former on the Global Fishing Watch fishing activity heat map.

AIS data as broadcast may vary in completeness, accuracy and quality. Also, data collection by satellite or terrestrial receivers may introduce errors through missing or inaccurate data. Global Fishing Watch’s fishing detection algorithm is a best effort mathematically to identify “apparent fishing activity.”

As a result, it is possible that some fishing activity is not identified as such by Global Fishing Watch; conversely, Global Fishing Watch may show apparent fishing activity where fishing is not actually taking place. For these reasons, Global Fishing Watch qualifies designations of vessel fishing activity, including synonyms of the term “fishing activity,” such as “fishing” or “fishing effort,” as “apparent” rather than certain. Any/all Global Fishing Watch information about “apparent fishing activity” should be considered an estimate and must be relied upon solely at your own risk.

Global Fishing Watch is taking steps to make sure fishing activity designations are as accurate as possible. Global Fishing Watch fishing detection algorithms are developed and tested using actual fishing event data collected by observers, combined with expert analysis of vessel movement data resulting in the manual classification of thousands of known fishing events. Global Fishing Watch also collaborates extensively with academic researchers through our research program to share fishing activity classification data and automated classification techniques.

And while its use for fisheries compliance and MCS is argued quite substantially, it can be useful in my opinion as backup system when VMS fail (until vessels come to port) of when operating in the High Seas.

While AIS is not as fisheries specific as VMS, the fact that one can "visualize" the "fishing effort", anywhere in the world is truly remarkable, and brings home the incredible amount of Chinese and Taiwanese vessels that they are fishing in the Pacific!