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Satellites Are Zeroing in on Poachers and Traffickers in the ‘Outlaw Ocean’

Some vessels use ocean rendezvous to exchange contraband, and even captive crew. But big data tools are finding new ways to track these activities from outer space.

The oceans are Earth’s most mysterious frontier, and for that reason, they inspire enchantment and awe. But our lack of familiarity with marine habitats is a double-edged sword. As spotlighted by journalist Ian Urbina in the New York Times’s 2015 series “Outlaw Ocean,” the high seas provide ample opportunities for smugglers, poachers, and human traffickers to commit crimes with little fear of detection.


This problem has prompted a coalition of NGOs, conservationists, and big data experts to develop sophisticated surveillance tools to shed light on illegal ocean activities. Among the most prominent examples is Global Fishing Watch (GFW), an interactive map that tracks fishing vessels worldwide, which Google launched in 2016 in partnership with the nonprofits Oceana and SkyTruth.

GFW provides constant real-time monitoring of the world’s commercial fishing fleets. The data is generated by automatic identification system (AIS) signals, which are satellite transponders that broadcast ship locations to prevent collisions. Most nations require vessels to constantly transmit AIS data, though there are some situations in which trackers can be switched off, such as avoiding piracy.

GFW plots AIS data, which is publicly available, on a world map to pinpoint potentially suspect patterns of behavior. For instance, one of the most reliable ways to obscure illegal activities at sea is through “transshipments,” which are rendezvous to exchange fuel, catch, and other resources from one boat to another. These meetups aren’t inherently suspicious, but they are a crucial avenue for criminal actors to obscure the source of poached catch—or even keep crew members imprisoned onboard.

Image: Global Fishing Watch

“In a lot of these cases, [ships] can stay out well beyond three or four months at a time, but the only reason they’re able to do that is that they are meeting up with other vessels that are refueling them and providing crew and catch for them,” Brian Sullivan, Google’s lead on GFW, told me. “Because these vessels don’t need to come into port, it’s a lot easier for them to keep people literally captive on those boats.”


It’s rarely possible to distinguish legal transshipments and illegal transactions from live satellite feeds, but Sullivan hopes to build “a social network” of vessels that could contextualize the larger flow of illegal capital and labor across the oceans. The idea is to track points of origin for fishing vessels, catalog where and for how long they meet up with other boats, and build a web of relationships between various fleets and companies to establish a more cohesive understanding of transactions occurring in the ocean.

“There are certain ports where a lot of slave labor tends to happen,” he said. “By being able to map out this network, we can start to understand which boats are associated with other boats [so] we can build the MySpace or Facebook link that shows how all these vessels are interconnected.”

There’s no question that building this network diminishes privacy on the ocean. Though AIS data is public, GFW is the first large-scale platform to plot it out on a map that is accessible to anyone with an internet connection. But for the most part, fisheries remain unperturbed by GFW, and corporations like Cosco, Walmart, and Sodexo have similarly supported initiatives to curb the criminal activity that affects the long-term viability of their supply chains.

Take this study published Wednesday in Science Advances, based in part on GFW data, which found that without government subsidies, “as much as 54 percent of the present high-seas fishing grounds would be unprofitable at current fishing rates.”


“If we see that [fisheries] are working at an economic loss,” Sullivan pointed out, “that’s probably a higher risk area for slave labor.”

Read More: This Company Built AI to Detect Modern Slavery

On top of these machine learning and big data strategies, GFW is amassing a backlog of evidence to cross-check what it believes might be shady activity by vessel operators. For instance, when crew member James Numbaru on the purse seiner (a type of fishing vessel) Feng Xiang 818 fell overboard last summer, GFW data showed that the crew kept fishing and did not conduct a search for the missing person, despite the captain’s claim to the contrary.

Likewise, when the cargo ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was busted for smuggling 300 metric tons of illegally obtained fish and sharks in August 2017, GFW was able to retrace its motions back to a transshipment between several vessels that likely offloaded the catch.

Eerily, when news spread that the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 had been intercepted by Ecuadorian authorities, some of the ships it likely met with “went dark” by turning off their AIS trackers.

Given that as much as 32 percent of seafood imported to the US is caught illegally, and that forced labor is still sadly common on the oceans, there is a dire need for increased transparency and accountability in the worldwide fishing industry. GFW is a powerful information-gathering tool toward this end, but ultimately it will take government action and public advocacy to end the days of “outlaw” oceans.

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