Revealing the Unseen: How Technology and Transparency in Fisheries Management Can Transform Ocean Conservation  | Oceana
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January 19, 2024

Revealing the Unseen: How Technology and Transparency in Fisheries Management Can Transform Ocean Conservation 


A groundbreaking study recently published in Nature unveiled a startling reality: about 75% of the world’s industrial fishing vessels are practically invisible to authorities. The research was led by Global Fishing Watch (GFW), an organization founded by Oceana, SkyTruth, and Google in 2015 to improve transparency at sea. This platform empowers anyone to track vessel movements and behavior in near real-time, effectively putting eyes on the sea.  

Recent advancements in satellite data and deep-learning models have opened a new frontier in understanding human activities at sea. Using these advancements, and data from automatic identification system (AIS) devices, Global Fishing Watch (GFW) has provided new insights into industrial fishing practices. AIS is a critical transparency tool that was initially developed to increase safety at sea and enables vessels to share their location and identity information with other vessels and authorities. GFW uses AIS data to infer vessel behavior, including when a vessel appears to fish or potentially encounters another vessel which could allow for the transfer of its catch or exchange of crew. This study raises urgent questions about untracked activities from vessels that do not broadcast AIS and highlights significant challenges for the sustainable management of the world’s oceans.  

The Study and Its Findings: 

Researchers at GFW, in collaboration with academic institutions, compared synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) imagery data from the European Space Agency with AIS data using advanced machine learning techniques to pinpoint fishing activities of the so-called “hidden fleet” that had previously been invisible. Exposing dark vessels reveals that 70% of all commercial fishing globally occurs in Asian waters. The disparity between visible and invisible vessels underscores the limitations of current vessel tracking regulations and reiterates why transparency at sea is vital. 

Untracked Vessels, Illegal Activities, and the Urgent Need for Transparency: 

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is defined as any fishing activity that violates fishery conservation and management rules or that operates outside the reach of regulatory oversight. IUU fishing threatens the conservation of marine species, the sustainability of fisheries, the livelihoods of fishers internationally, and the well- being of workers in the industry. IUU fishing is often closely linked with human rights abuses like forced labor, as illegal operators try to cut labor costs while engaging in unsustainable fishing practices. AIS is invaluable for transparency and monitoring, as it allows fisheries managers and authorities to detect suspicious and illegal behavior.  

At an Oceana roundtable event focused on IUU fishing, former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said, “When [IUU boats] ‘go dark,’ they become a maritime danger to anyone in the area, and that includes our Navy — first because of the risk of collisions at sea, but also because you can’t tell what they’re up to. It could be IUU, but it could also be piracy, or human trafficking, or weapons smuggling, or almost anything.”  

The transparency of knowing where vessels are, and what they are doing, brings illegal behavior to light and discourages environmentally, economically, and socially harmful fishing practices. 

Progress Requires Continual Action: 

Significant strides have been made following GFW’s pioneering efforts to map commercial fishing. Oceana’s guidance led to the European Union’s mandate for tracking systems on all EU registered fishing vessels by 2030, including 49,000 small-scale craft. Similar initiatives have been adopted in the Philippines, Peru, Chile, and Belize. 

Unfortunately, in the United States, the effectiveness of AIS for safety and transparency is stunted by loose legal requirements; only U.S. vessels over 65 feet are required to carry AIS and only within 12 nautical miles of shore. Only about 12% of the more than 19,000 U.S. registered commercial fishing vessels meet the length of 65 feet requirement.      

Impact on Marine Protected Areas:  

Alarmingly, the study found that untracked fishing vessels frequently operate within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), including significant numbers within the Galápagos Marine Reserve and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  Within the Galápagos Marine Reserve alone, the study found more than five “dark” vessels were fishing per week. An Oceana analysis of the same protected area found more than 53 instances of Chinese-flagged vessels appearing to turn off their tracking devices for more than 27,000 total hours over the course of two and a half years. This previously unmapped activity highlights the vulnerability of even the most iconic and supposedly well-protected marine environments. 


Transparency can have a transformative impact on fisheries management and ocean conservation.  

Improving transparency at sea is a high priority at Oceana and the organization amplifies these efforts globally. As a founding member of the Coalition for Fisheries Transparency, Oceana and a network of over 40 NGOs, unified under the 10 Principles of the Global Charter for Fisheries Transparency, are on the front lines advocating for governments to improve fisheries transparency. Principle 5, “Make vessel position data public”, and Principle 1, “Require unique identification numbers for all fishing vessels”, are particularly critical to illuminate the global hidden fleet.  

By making fishing visible to the world, we can better understand where it’s taking place, allowing us to properly protect marine resources, deter illegal fishing, enforce sustainable practices, and safeguard the livelihoods and food security of the billions of people who depend on the ocean.