What do you get when the world’s leading marine conservation group, a digital mapping non-profit and a data-storing giant team up? Global Fishing Watch (GFW), a free online tool that will allow anyone to track movements of fishing fleets around the world. GFW uses data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS), a tracking system used by over 100,000 vessels, to identify behavior consistent with fishing. It represents the next step in transparency within the seafood supply chain.
The creation of Global Fishing Watch comes at an exciting time for the world of marine conservation and seafood sustainability. On March 15, at Seafood Expo North America in Boston, Massachusetts, the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud unveiled its action plan. The plan lays out ambitious steps that the federal government will take to put an end to seafood fraud and illegal fishing, both domestically and internationally.
The two initiatives also arrive during a period of turmoil within marine ecosystems and the global fishing community. The Associated Press recently published an in-depth look at perhaps the most horrific crime within today’s fishing industry: slavery on fishing vessels, including at least one from Thailand. The piece, by Robin McDowell, Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza, focuses on Benjina, a forested island in Indonesia where hundreds of men, who were kidnapped or tricked into working on Thai fishing boats, are beaten, locked in cages and forced to fish for up to 22 hours a day. This is one of many recent articles that has brought fisheries slavery in Thailand into the public eye, and is by far the most comprehensive.
While the violation of human rights is clear in the case of Benjina, what may be less clear to American seafood consumers is their connection to the slave trade. Over the course of a year the AP tracked a single shipment of slave-caught seafood from Benjina, using satellites to follow it from the Indonesian village where it was loaded onto a large cargo ship filled with other fish, to a harbor in Thailand. From there, AP investigators followed trucks loaded with fish from the cargo ship, the Silver Sea Line, as they made deliveries to seafood distributors and exporters. These exporters sell to companies in the U.S., including Wal-Mart and Sysco, the largest retailer and distributor of seafood in America. Because it is impossible to track each individual fish caught by Benjina slaves, and because a portion of the seafood on the Silver Sea Line may have been caught legally, there is no way to tell if a specific fish sold at Wal-Mart or Sysco was caught by slaves.
This is where the IUU and Seafood Fraud Task Force and Global Fishing Watch come in. One of the goals of the Task Force is to make sure all seafood that enters the U.S. is traceable from catch to point of entry. This involves revamping data collection methods and analysis so regulators can identify fraudulently labeled and illegally caught fish. The government is planning to start with species at risk of illegal fishing and seafood fraud, and then expand to all seafood. Much of the exported seafood from Thailand is captured illegally and therefore cannot be traced back to a legal origin. Under the new rules, these fish would not be allowed to enter the U.S. seafood market. With access to specific vessel information to verify the legality of a catch, including the name and identification numbers of the ship, government officials could use Global Fishing Watch to confirm the information and police any questionable data.
The Task Force will also explore how to provide consumers with more information about their seafood purchases, which would allow buyers to promote sustainable fishing practices through purchasing decisions. Information such as the species name, where the fish was caught, whether it was farmed or wild, and how it was caught can help seafood consumers make more informed decisions. With access to the geographic origin of their seafood, individual buyers could use Global Fishing Watch to police specific areas of the ocean.
At a time of growing interest in seafood sustainability, traceability and transparent supply chains, GFW is a tool that will allow regulators and consumers to be more involved in the global seafood market and promoting sustainable practices. Global Fishing Watch will help ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught, honestly labeled and sourced from fisheries that do not use slaves.