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To Stop Marine Poachers, Google and Ecologists Are Ending Privacy at Sea

“I think if we can empower people to watch this tragedy unfold on their phones, we can break this cycle.”
Fishery in the Maldives. Image: Bruno de Giusti

Over the last century, ocean biodiversity has been obliterated by overfishing and industrialization, resulting in a looming mass extinction event in the seas. Though several enormous marine protected areas (MPAs) have been established, poachers are still slipping through the cracks, undermining crucial attempts to stop the ecological freefall occurring in marine environments.

Fortunately, a team led by UC Santa Barbara ecologist Douglas McCauley has suggested an innovative solution to this problem that merges Big Data, citizen science, and conservation. In a paper published today in the journal Science, McCauley and his co-authors argue that using automatic identification systems (AIS), which are navigational aids that use satellite tracking to prevent ship collisions, could be the key to keeping fishing vessels honest.


"Every 16-year-old in the US that wants to drive a car gets assigned a number," McCauley told me via email. "It troubles me that we don't care to apply the same standards to an industry that will control the fate of ocean biodiversity, food security, public health, and billion dollar coastal economies."

Indeed, despite the widespread use of these AIS trackers, McCauley's team points out that in 2014, only 3.5 percent of self-identified fishing vessels reported a valid identification code—called an International Maritime Organization (IMO) number—via AIS, demonstrating a shocking lack of accountability at sea.

Fishing activity in the global oceans has reached such high densities that tracks of fishermen map out the world in reverse. This map displays fishing vessel data from 2015 alone. Image: Douglas McCauley

The problem is not so much that fishing crews are nefarious opportunists angling to exploit marine preserves, but rather that there is simply no real incentive for them to broadcast their IMO numbers—or even to register them in the first place.

"The IMO allows large fishing vessels to voluntarily sign up for an IMO number," McCauley said. "Nobody I know voluntary signs up for an ID number."

"Vessels may be required by local law to carry AIS," he added, "but nobody checks whether they register the system properly and fill out all the optional data fields. Who among us fills in those boxes in online forms unless they are required? We need to change policy that requires an IMO ID be attached to these AIS feeds."

In other words, the global maritime community has barely even begun to harness the broader potential of AIS as a powerful conservation tool, as well as a means to collect enormous amounts of data about ongoing activity in our oceans.


What's more, because AIS data is broadcast publicly, it can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. Projects like Global Fishing Watch, an interactive fishing tracking service spearheaded by Google, SkyTruth, and Oceana, aim to increase the role of the average citizen in ocean advocacy by providing them with the tools to monitor fishing vessels.

Global Fishing Watch explainer. Video: YouTube/Global Fishing Watch

"This democratization of ocean observation is key," McCauley told me. "People often talk about ocean health being wrecked by the tragedy of the commons (i.e. if you don't catch that last fish, someone else will). I think if we can empower people to watch this tragedy unfold on their phones, we can break this cycle."

"I'm a fisherman," he continued. "I believe in the importance of fishing. I think 99.9 percent of the fishermen out there are doing the right thing because they want to be able to turn their wheelhouses over to their kids. I think the small number of bad actors out there will behave more responsibly if they know NGOs, soccer dads, surfers, and politicians are watching their behavior."

Beyond illegal fishing, broader AIS compliance would also lend more accountability to the underwater industrial revolution, which includes disruptive activities like seabed mining. It also has the potential to reduce collisions between ships and whales, and to inform scientists about the optimal routes ships should take in order to avoid interfering with the ocean's most vulnerable ecosystems.

Purse seine fishing in Chile. Image: C. Ortiz Rojas

At this point, the main argument against the adoption of large scale AIS tracking is that it would infringe on the privacy of industries that harvest ocean resources. But for McCauley and his colleagues, commercial privacy concerns are dramatically outweighed by the alarming collapse of marine biodiversity, and all the ominous consequences that will have for the future of our own species.

"In Moby Dick, Melville writes about ships leaving part and being swallowed up by the anonymity of the sea," McCauley said.

"That no longer seems very romantic when the price of protecting privacy at sea means that food and money is stolen via illegal fishing from poor countries, that the future of amazing animals like sharks and sea turtles is put at risk, and that we can't stop all kinds of social injustice that happens at sea."