The fishing vessels secretly fish in our oceans

05 January, 2024

Three quarters of the world’s industrial fishing vessels are “dark”, they are not publicly tracked.

This is shown by a new study, published in Nature, which with the help of space technology and AI managed to create the first global map of how we use the ocean.

The fishing vessels dominate and most of them do it stealthily. The study shows that 75% of fishing vessels neglect to broadcast their positions, which may indicate illegal fishing.

Global Fishing Watch (GFW) led the study with researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Duke University; University of California, Santa Barbara; and SkyTruth. They analyzed 2 million gigabytes of satellite images between 2017 and 2021, to detect ships and offshore infrastructure in coastal waters across six continents. Then they combined GPS data with radar and optical images, from the European Space Agency and others, to identify ships that did not broadcast their positions. With the help of AI, they were then able to make an estimate of which vessels were likely to be fishing vessels.

The researchers have been able to reveal several “hotspots” where industrial fishing vessels, which have not been seen officially, encroach on waters only allowed for small-scale coastal fishing. Or where they are inside marine protected areas. For example, an average of 20 vessels a week are fishing on the Great Barrier Reef, and five vessels a week in the Galápagos Islands. Two of the most monitored and biologically important reserves in the world.

Ship off the coast of Galapagos. Photo: Simon Stanford, Archive image

– A new industrial revolution has appeared in our oceans undetected – until now, says David Kroodsma, head of research and innovation at GFW and co-author of the study, to The Guardian.

– On land, we have detailed maps of almost every road and building on the planet. However, the growth in our ocean has largely been hidden from the public. This study helps eliminate the dead spots and shed light on the breadth and intensity of human activity at sea.

Text: Lena Scherman
Photo: Simon Stanford

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