Leonardo DiCaprio and Google launch app to help combat illegal fishing

Read Time:   |  19th September 2016

On Sept. 15, film star and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio unveiled Global Fishing Watch for the public at the US State Department’s Our Ocean 2016 conference. Global Fishing Watch is a free tool that allows anyone with an internet connection to track the activities of fishing vessels on the world’s oceans in a bid to put pressure on the fishing industry to put an end to illegal fishing. 

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The app was created with the goal of getting the public engaged in illegal fishing, which makes up 35 percent of the global wild marine catch, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. This, DiCaprio and the state department believe, will put pressure on the fishing industry to play nice or risk exposure and the wrath of the public.

The notion is that knowing what’s going on is the first step in garnering interest and turning individuals into activists. Or, as DiCaprio said at the conference, “This platform will empower citizens across the globe to become powerful advocates for our oceans.” By providing the information free online, marine conservation campaigners hope citizens will be able to play their part in looking for illegal activity.

Josh Laughren of Oceana Canada says the app can monitor and hopefully deter illegal fishing, as it determined specific fishing behaviours and routes. Users can tell if fishing boats are going beyond their boundaries and into protected waters. The data, Laughren explains, comes from publicly available identification technology that all ships have. The technology is a safety measure meant to prevent accidents on the high seas. It sends a ping to either a satellite or a land receiver every few seconds. Global Fishing Watch collates these pings to pinpoint the location and identity of a specific ship.

According to a 2013 World Ocean Review, 11 to 26 million tons of seafood are caught illicitly, and curbing these operations has been a very difficult task. Laughren points out, “Illegal fishing, especially on the high seas, hurts the planet’s food security. It hurts the fishing industry and the communities that rely on it.”

Many of those in the fishing industry agree, and are hopeful that the app can indeed make fishing much more sustainable, giving the public power to help make a difference in the cause.

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Before you begin your environmental espionage, one caveat: to keep prices low so the technology could remain free, Phys.org reports, the new platform negotiated a deal with the communications technology company Orbcomm for “near real-time” data—information that is three days old, as well as past records. (Presumably, real-time data would be costlier.) That means you won’t be seeing any illegal activity as it happens.
Note, too, that vessels engaged in illegal activities can—and do—try to spoof the AIS system by providing false information. Crews can manually enter incorrect longitudes and latitudes into their AIS transmitters and upload these to satellites, which read them as legitimate GPS data. But Ami Daniel, CEO of marine analytics firm Windward, told Fast Company that tricking the system like this doesn’t work in the long term because erratic behavior can be spotted over time…which is just one reason why Global Fishing Watch wants more eyes on the high seas.


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Global Fishing Watch, a prototype tool unveiled today by Google and two conservation groups, maps the voyages of 25,000 large vessels during 2012 and 2013 and highlights where they engaged in fishing behavior (yellow and orange patches). Users can zoom in to identify and track individual vessels and see where they may have engaged in unlicensed fishing in marine protected areas or other nations’ exclusive economic zones (light blue boundary lines). Oceana/SkyTruth

The app has a website that gives full instructions on what to do and how to track vessels, as well as an FAQ section to answer any questions that users might have on the operation and on commercial fishing technology.

This story first appeared on Quartz.  

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