Google makes waves with new sustainable fishing data platform

Google has unveiled a new beta technology platform that utilises enhanced data collection and transparency to promote and improve policies and provide the "world's first global view" of sustainable fishing practices.

The Global Fishing Watch has been launched in partnership with non-profit Oceana and satellite analysts SkyTruth to digest and relay more than 22 million points of information on shipping vessel activities across the global each day.

“Global Fishing Watch was not possible five years ago,” Google’s senior programme manager Brian Sullivan said. “From a technology perspective, satellites were just beginning to collect vessel positions over the open ocean, and the ‘global coverage’ was spotty.

“There has been tremendous growth in machine learning with applications in new fields. Policy and regulatory frameworks have evolved, with the US, European Union (EU), and other nations and Regional Fishery Management Organisations now requiring that vessels broadcast their positions. Market forces and import laws are beginning to demand transparency and traceability, both as a positive differentiator and for risk management. All of these forces interact and shape each other.

“Today, Global Fishing Watch is an early preview of what is possible. We’re committed to continuing to build tools, partnerships, and access to information to help restore our abundant ocean for generations to come.”

Global Fishing Watch, which will eventually be enhanced through a collaborative project with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), combines the collection of satellite data with cloud computing technology to enable the tracking of fishing activity amongst vessels.

Google hopes that the data collection will identify suspicious vessel activity and inform new sustainable policies. With the company claiming that fish populations have fallen by 90% for certain species, the Global Fishing Watch can collect data from 200,000 vessels at any given time to clamp down on illegal and unregulated fishing.

Working with the FAO, Google will seek to introduce new research methodologies for reporting on marine issues, as well as developing enhanced transparency tools to help nations improve the monitoring and surveillance of fishing activities in surrounding waters.

Backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Google’s work with the FAO will also extend to the development of a Global Fishing Watch Research Programme, which will enlist the help of nine other institutions – including CSIRO, Stanford University and National Geographic – to model economic, environmental, policy and climate change implications on fisheries at a scale “not otherwise possible”.

Project Eyes on the Seas

The launch of the Global Fishing Watch arrived as more than 20 countries, including the US and the UK, vowed to create 40 new marine sanctuaries around the world, in order to combat the impacts of pollution and climate change on the oceans.

The UK Government announced that more than £20m will be invested in doubling the area of ocean under marine protection around British Overseas Territories, including the designation of protected areas around the Pitcairn Islands, which host a marine environment covering around 840,000 sq km.

The Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve, almost 3.5 times the size of the UK, houses at least 1,249 marine species and was also the first area in the world to be examined by a government using a detailed data monitoring strategy.

In partnership with The Pew Charitable Trust, the UK Government established Project Eyes on the Seas, a monitoring trail from January 2015 to March 2016, to determine the extent of illegal fishing in the area. It was hoped that the trial would verify which technologies could be used to enforce monitoring practices.

During the 13-month trial, floating drones and satellite data were used to examine the area for more than 10,000 hours. Research released last week revealed that a total of 574 vessels were recorded, with eight referred for further investigation and 18 flagged for potential illegal fishing practices.

The combination of monitoring methods also identified 12 “dark vessels”—vessels which can’t be detected using satellite monitoring and imagery data alone – highlighting the capabilities of combining technologies. Overall, it was suggested that the Pitcairn Reserve was considered a “high compliance area”, due to the low levels of illegal fishing in the area.

Buoyed by business

Businesses have also been introducing new schemes to promote sustainable fishing and marine conservation in supply chains.

In May, a list of cross-sector companies including Asda, Morrisons, McDonald’s, Birds Eye voluntarily signed an agreement to protect a key Arctic region from industrial fishing, by preventing suppliers from expanding cod fisheries into pristine marine waters.

Meanwhile, M&S recently became the first British retailer to support and improve the environmental sustainability of the fishing sector by signing up to the UK’s Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS) which provides a set of guidelines for supplier vessels and skippers.

Matt Mace

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