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Vibrant Oceans Q&A: Fighting illegal fishing through Global Fishing Watch

Leonardo DiCaprio and Secretary of State John Kerry at the Our Ocean conference in September 2016 where Oceana and partners launched the Global Fishing Watch platform.

The global losses due to illegal fishing and overfishing cost the world’s economy up to $23.5 billion annually. Vessels are getting away with these harmful practices by failing to report where they are fishing and what they are catching. They’re fishing in protected waters and depleting the fisheries of certain species, diminishing populations to irreparable lows, harming the livelihoods of and depleting an important source of protein for populations in many of the world’s countries.

To tackle this issue, Oceana, SkyTruth, and Google launched Global Fishing Watch, a free online platform that allows users to view fishing activity by tracking commercial fishing vessels around the world. Global Fishing Watch’s goal is to put an end to massive illegal fishing and overfishing that is decimating fisheries and livelihoods around the world.

Indonesia became the first nation to publish their Vessel Monitoring System data on the Global Fishing Watch platform. Now, anyone with internet access can track the location and activity of Indonesia’s commercial fishing fleet, which had previously been invisible to the public. By making the location of its fishing vessels public, Indonesia became a leader in global fishing transparency. This encouraged other nations like Peru to follow, making oceans more transparent and unveiling illegal fishing practices around the world.

To learn more, we spoke with Jacqueline Savitz, Senior Vice President for the US Global Fishing Watch at Oceana, and Patricia Majluf, Vice President for Peru at Oceana.

What do the announcements of Indonesia and Peru’s commitment to publishing their Vessel Monitoring System data mean for the future of Global Fishing Watch and global fisheries management?

Jacqueline Savitz: One of the biggest problems with illegal fishing is that it’s not on the radar screen. Global Fishing Watch is the first tool that allows everyone in the world to see fishing activity for free in near real time. But, we can only see vessels that are broadcasting their locations. Many vessels are turning their transmitters off, and other, especially the smaller vessels, don’t have transmitters to begin with, leaving us with a huge gap in information. One way we can fill in big chunks of information is by looking at Vessel Monitoring System data that is required by some countries. However, while countries collect that information, they don’t make it available to the public. If this data were to be made public, it would greatly strengthen Global Fishing Watch’s effort to understand illegal fishing.

It is incredibly helpful that Indonesia committed to make that information public. There is now this big chunk of data we can now show through Global Fishing Watch, and that we can give everyone in the world access to. Peru then stepped up to the plate and committed to making its Vessel Monitoring System data public, too. Having seen this as an important trend, we hope other countries will now make their data public on Global Fishing Watch. As Global Fishing Watch pulls in data from more countries, the platform will become an even more useful tool and enable even greater transparency.
Patricia Majluf: Anyone who is interested in looking at what is happening with commercial fishing vessels and if they are respecting Marine Protected Areas can now do so. The system still needs refining and Peru’s data still needs to be uploaded, but we are starting to get an idea of where these fleets are fishing. This allows the public to better understand fishing practices in certain areas. For Peru in particular, it is a very new development. This is a huge step for the commercial fishing sector to open up and collaborate with international organizations to make this data widely available.

What are the most important and/or interesting things being done by users of the Global Fishing Watch platform?

JS: People are using Global Fishing Watch in a multitude of interesting ways. We were able to catch illegal fishing in Marine Protected Areas in 2015 in the waters of a small country. That vessel had to pay a major fine, making a big difference for that country’s GDP. We were also able to use Global Fishing Watch to convince the residents of a small island off Chile to get the government to protect their waters by showing them that large commercial fishing fleets are encroaching on the island’s waters. Academics are using the platform for research, and it’s being cited in scientific journals. So far, there are 30,000 registered users on the platform and we are constantly adding new features to make it more useful.

PM: We were able to detect Chinese and Korean fleets fishing just outside of Peru’s economic zone, and suspect they are fishing inside of the zone. These vessels are fishing giant squid and passing them to ships taking them straight to China. This affects our national exports in Peru because we have our own catch of giant squid to export, but we can’t compete with the prices of the Chinese catch. With Global Fishing Watch we can look at which vessels are on the border of our economic zone, and eventually be able to monitor who is in our zone. We also discovered evidence of illegal shark landings through disparities in the official landing and export figures. In Peru, fishermen are able to land sharks with official records and reports. There’s a number of vessels that fish for tuna in the South Pacific that also catch sharks and bring them into Peruvian ports but they don’t formally report their shark catch. Hopefully, we will soon be able to inspect these vessels and their landings, preventing illegal shark landings and exports.

How does Oceana and its partners plan to use Global Fishing Watch in the future?

JS: We are planning to expand the ways that users can identify vessels fishing where they are not supposed to be, demonstrating the need for countries to protect areas and enforce the rules they have set to make fishing more sustainable. It may be possible to use Global Fishing Watch to demonstrate interactions between fishing vessels and protected species like sharks, which we hope to tag and then track via the platform.
One of our goals is to get more countries to follow in the footsteps of Indonesia and Peru and share their Vessel Monitoring System data. We are also encouraging businesses, such as seafood buyers, to make their supply chains transparent so they can charge a premium for their fish.

PM: Global Fishing Watch can provide countries with a cheap alternative to keep track of their vessels, such as artisanal fishermen’s boats going way off shore to catch squid. We have been hosting workshops for small scale fisherman who don’t have any tracking devices to install transmitters and start broadcasting their data, so that these smaller vessels can be monitored and found if they get lost.


For more information about Global Fishing Watch and Oceana’s partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, visit our blog where Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless tells the story of the launch of Global Fishing Watch. Also, check out an episode of Follow the Data with Melissa Wright of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Environment team and Andy, where they discuss the ways that the Vibrant Oceans Initiative is promoting responsible fisheries management across the globe to protect fishing communities for generations to come.