Eyes in the sky

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Modern vessels bristle with advanced navigation and communication equipment, and yet human activity in our seas is not well quantified, largely because the location data is shared privately rather than publicly, or not broadcast at all. This makes it hard to understand the impact of fishing, transport and energy sectors on the environment, and indeed on the expansion of the two trillion-dollar blue economy.

To understand the movements of these “dark vessels”, researchers from Global Fishing Watch analysed two million gigabytes of satellite data using three deep-learning models to recognise fishing vessels and compared it with the GPS positions from 53 billion public AIS messages. The NGO discovered that three-quarters of the world’s fishing vessels were not being publicly tracked, including in New Zealand waters.

The data shows the true distribution of fishing effort in our oceans for the first time—critical information as the world increasingly relies on the ocean for food, trade and energy.

“Transparency is essential for the sustainability of fisheries. Making information about the ocean and vessel activity available to those it affects can help bolster management,” says Fernando Paolo, lead author of the study.

Fishing vessels that are not publicly tracked are not necessarily fishing illegally, and industrial fishing vessels may have good, yet private, monitoring systems in place, says Paolo, “but the ocean is a shared resource, and the knowledge around it needs to be shared as well”

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