Since the first hook caught the first fish perhaps 40,000 years ago, technology has raced with increasing speed to extract more and more fish from the oceans. Most big fish are long gone and fishing vessels are inexorably hauling in the rest—sometimes legally, sometimes not.
But on Friday, American non-profits SkyTruth and Oceana, supported by Google, unveiled a prototype program called Global Fishing Watch that will eventually allow anyone with a computer to observe which vessel is fishing where—and perhaps infer whether they are poaching or not.
“Our goal is to make the invisible visible," John Amos, the president of SkyTruth, told me. The tiny company based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, made a name for itself by acquiring and releasing satellite pictures that showed that the amount of oil flowing from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was greater than BP was claiming at the time.
According to the team, it will be possible for experts to go online and zoom into areas like marine reserves where fishing is forbidden or coastal areas where it’s restricted to vessels with permits by next March.
The program is based on the Automatic Identification System (AIS), originally a voluntary collision-avoidance system for ships that relies on VHF transmitters aboard vessels that transmit their position, identity, and speed continuously to other ships and to satellites. “Global Fishing Watch enables the user to see the global fishing fleet in both space and time, and in any part of the world,” said David Manthos of SkyTruth.