See the World’s Fishing Fleets in Near Real-Time

Fishing is an ancient practice dating back to at least 40,000 years ago. But like so many other age-old human practices, in the 21st century it has become an industrialized, globalized industry worth billions: on any given day across the world, tens of thousands of fishing boats of every size haul in hundreds of thousands of tons of fish. Close to half a billion people make a living, directly or indirectly, through fisheries and aquaculture (fish farms) in the developing world alone.

But as Brad Plumer over at points out, this economically and culturally vital activity comes at an environmental cost:

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 U.N.’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.

Hence the rise in fish farming, another ancient practice that has become scaled up and increasingly sophisticated. In the last several decades, it has helped fill the gap of depleted fisheries, accounting for 42 percent of total fish production as of 2012.

Enter Global Fishing Watch, a massive project undertaken by conservation groups Oceana and SkyTruth, with the help of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Utilizing Google mapping software, it tracks the estimated 35,000 or so commercial fishing vessels whose position, course, and speed are picked up by a network of satellites. It’s not quite real time — there’s a lag of about 72 hours — but it is certainly close enough, and the results are impressive:


Of course, this is just a Gif sample, but you can see the real deal here (you must register with the website to do so, however).

Aside from being a neat way to appreciate how much work goes into getting fish on our plate — and as an avid seafood lover, I definitely appreciate it — this project has far meaningful aims, namely in relation to the above noted problem of overfishing:

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.”

Given the inherent difficulty of enforcing fishing quotas on such large expanses of water, most countries are struggling with the problem of illegal catches, especially in international waters. (To address the issue of overfishing in open oceans, the U.N.-sanctioned Agreement on Port State Measures obligates signatory nations to shut their ports to ships suspected of “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing, although only thirty nations have signed on, not including major fish producers like China and Russia.)

But the same technological edge that makes fishing dangerously easy to overdo is also making it easier to address this problem. Since all big fishing vessels are required to use an Automatic Identification System (AIS) that keeps track of a ship’s identity and movement, Global Fishing Watch can basically tap into this data and convey it in a way that makes it easy to keep track of who is fishing where they shouldn’t.

Consider the following case studies, also via



Like any new endeavor, Global Fishing Watch has its issues and limitations; for example, it can’t track the smaller fishing boats that don’t have to use the AIS — hence calls for the system to be expanded to all vessels — and the system often mistakes a ship’s location or identity. Moreover, some emboldened crews often tamper with their AIS broadcasts to hide themselves, although GFW is seeking a workaround for such subterfuge.


In any case, this is an excellent idea that is well needed at a time when so many of humanity’s resources face depletion, exploitation, and neglect. Granted, data is only part of the equation — we still need public and political will to act on it — but it is a critical place to start.

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