Currently, modern-day pirates exploit the loose regulations and weak enforcement of fisheries laws on the high seas and in the territorial waters of many countries around the world. This kind of illegal fishing cheats seafood consumers and hurts honest fishermen and seafood businesses that play by the rules. Laws like the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act are necessary and important. But the long-term abundance that can come from our marine environment depends on governments, fishery management organizations, citizens and the fishing industry working together to prevent dishonest actors from playing outside of the rules.

For centuries, what happened over the horizon was invisible to the rest of the world — out of sight, out of mind. But that is all about to change.


Last week, at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Parks Congress in Sydney, a partnership comprised of Google, Skytruth and Oceana announced Global Fishing Watch, a new prototype technology that will allow anyone in the world with an Internet connection to track global fishing vessels and activities, including possible illegal activity. The technology works by analyzing data gathered from the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which is a tracking technology that the International Maritime Organization requires certain ships to use. Depending on the type of AIS being used, a vessel's location is automatically broadcasted as frequently as every two to 20 seconds while it is in transit, and every three to six minutes while anchored.

Global Fishing Watch will be able to analyze a fishing vessel's behavior in near-real-time to assess whether the vessel appears to be fishing — including activity by "blacklisted" vessels as long as their AIS is operating. It will also be able to determine whether vessels appear to be fishing in prohibited areas, or even fishing without the proper registration. The developers will be able to identify vessels that may not be following AIS broadcasting requirements, either by shutting down AIS transmitters or entering a false identification number. This information then can feed into fishery sustainability certifications, product import requirements or penalties where appropriate.

This technology will put some of the power of protecting the ocean and its resources back in the hands of the public and help ensure that officials and governments are accountable for enforcing global fisheries laws. It will also help those governments and others to address illegal fishing worldwide.

Global Fishing Watch is only a prototype right now. The public release of the free Web portal is expected in 2015 or 2016, depending on the availability of funding. In order to increase the effectiveness of the technology, Oceana urges governments to require the use of AIS for all commercial fishing vessels and to monitor for erratic use of AIS, which should result in penalties and other actions to deter this illegal behavior.

Global Fishing Watch is designed to empower all stakeholders so that together they may restore fishery and ocean abundance. Beyond the horizon is no longer out of sight and Global Fishing Watch provides hope for bringing back abundant oceans.

Savitz is the vice president for U.S. oceans at Oceana.