Technology Helps Fight Illegal Fishing

Google Earth image showing movements of fishing vessels (in red) off the coast of West Africa. Using AIS data, we can create images such as these and keep track of fishing activity.

Too often we hear about the overfishing crisis, but not what’s behind it. A big driver is illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. These activities remain invisible to governments, merchants and consumers. What happens out on the water is often left unmonitored. And once fish products leave the boat, they can be difficult to track through the supply chain.

WWF has found an inexpensive and effective way to retrace the routes and activities of fishing vessels. Through existing satellite data, we can reveal where illegal fishing activity may be taking place.

The data is part of a widespread technology known as AIS (Automatic Identification System). Ships using AIS equipment transmit their identity, position, course and speed. Much like air traffic control data, AIS data helps prevent collisions and allows authorities to monitor vessel activities. The information is collected by special receiver stations along coastlines and recently by satellite as well.

WWF obtained a large set of AIS satellite data during 2011-12 and developed a way to utilize it for tracking and understanding global fishing activity. AIS data points are analyzed to reveal a story of sorts.

With the data, we can now visualize specific ship movements, fishing patterns, and most importantly, potential illegal activities. For example, perhaps we want to verify that Europe is being supplied with fish from West Africa. Using AIS satellite data, we can re-create the routes of industrial fishing vessels that landed their catch in Europe. Looking at the movements on a map, we can see that the majority of those vessels were indeed spending time off the coast of West Africa.

WWF sees huge potential in the use of AIS, in combination with other verification methods (such as cloud-penetrating satellite imagery), to dramatically increase the visibility of fishing activities. But using AIS to track vessels has its limits. Not every vessel is required to have it, and it can be turned off.

WWF advocates for the mandatory installation of AIS on every commercial fishing vessel, regardless of size, to make this new approach a powerful tool in the battle for sustainable fishing.

Fisheries and sustainability

Eighty-five percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or overfished. WWF believes that conserving marine habitats and promoting sustainable fishing methods is as important to people as it is to wildlife.

We help industry along the entire value chain, from ocean to table, to protect our seafood supply and ensure that the interconnected network of underwater species will thrive into the future.

WWF works with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the world's leading certification and eco-labeling organization. Consumers can help end unsustainable fishing by choosing only fish that is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.