Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Santa Barbara, CA, United States (4E) – An extensive global view of the commercial fishing industry shows that fishing occurs in 55% of the world’s oceans and seas. In addition, fishing can now be monitored in near real time to the level of individual vessels thanks to satellite technology and machine learning algorithms.
The extent of global fishing down to single vessel movements and hourly activity was revealed for the first time by a study conducted by a team of scientists from the University of California Santa Barbara; Global Fishing Watch; National Geographic Society’s Pristine Sea project; Dalhousie University; SkyTruth; Google and Stanford University. Their findings were published in the journal, Science.
The study identified the 70,000 vessels of the global fishing fleet using satellite tracking, machine learning and common ship-tracking technology. It also found that these ships and boats travelled 460 million kilometers in 2016, equivalent to traveling to the Moon and back 600 times.
The team used machine learning technology to analyze 22 billion messages publicly broadcast from vessels’ AIS positions from 2012 to 2016, to answer the question, “What drives commercial fishing behavior?”
Based solely on vessel movement patterns, the Global Fishing Watch algorithm was able to identify more than 70,000 commercial fishing vessels; the sizes and engine powers of these vessels; what type of fishing they engage in and when and where they fished down to the hour and kilometer.
The study observed more than 40 million hours of fishing activity in 2016. Most nations appeared to fish predominantly within their own exclusive economic zones. China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea accounted for 85 percent of the observed fishing on the high seas.
“I think most people will be surprised that until now we didn’t really know where people were fishing in vast swaths of the ocean,” said co-author Christopher Costello, a professor at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.
“This new real-time dataset will be instrumental in designing improved management of the world’s oceans that is good for the fish, ecosystems and fishermen.”
This global survey showed the total area of the ocean fished is likely higher than the 55 percent estimated. That’s because some fishing efforts in regions of poor satellite coverage or in exclusive economic zones with a low percentage of vessels using the automatic identification system (AIS) were not included.
“Our analysis demonstrated that policies, cultures and economics play a huge role in driving fishing behavior,” said Costello.
“In addition, we examined whether fishing diminished when fuel prices were high and found a weak response,” he added. “These are the kinds of things about which we’ve always speculated but haven’t ever been able to test — until now.”
The resulting interactive map — which is freely available to the public — shows a near real-time view of the fishing patterns of individual vessels and fleets. This allows anyone to see what is going on in their own backyard and to observe where policy boundaries are in place and where they are not.
“By making this data public, we are providing governments, management bodies and researchers with the information needed to make transparent and well-informed decisions to better regulate fishing activities and reach conservation and sustainability goals,” said Juan Mayorga, a project scientist in the Sustainable Fisheries Group at the Bren School and with NatGeo’s Pristine Seas.
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