Global Fishing Watch; interesting but of limited value in Australia

15th March 2018

Global Fishing Watch (GFW) is an online tool with which users can view the tracks of some of the world’s fishing fleets.  The system uses ‘AIS’ data to do this.  AIS stands for “automatic identification system”.  It is an important safety tool used to avoid collisions between ships at sea.  Essentially a tracking system it allows ships to see information on other ships in the vicinity such as; name, call sign and position on their navigation systems, assign a ship’s name to a radar blip and even plot the path of nearby vessels.

Global Fishing Watch has created and made available free to the public a platform that allows anyone to view AIS equipped fishing vessels at sea and to try to understand their behaviour. GFW state that this allows research and innovation in areas that support ocean sustainability, including fisheries policy and compliance, seafood sourcing, and ocean conservation. GFW explain that their purpose is to protect the world’s fisheries because they are an important source of protein for almost half of the people on the planet.

However, the platform has very little value in Australia for many reasons:

Australian fisheries are more tightly managed than most international fisheries.  Many international fisheries are managed by simply limiting the number of vessels or placing some other inefficiency on vessels to limit their catches.  Countries do this because it is easier and cheaper than detailed counts of unloaded fish.  In contrast Australia’s larger fisheries are not managed by vessel number, instead they are managed by quotas which at set at sustainable levels based on stock assessments.  Australia’s larger fisheries use observers and cameras to quantify discards and have tight controls on counting landed catch so fisheries managers have an exact understanding of how much fish is being caught and can limit catches as required.

GFW explains that it tracks 65,000 vessels including 75% of fishing vessels larger than 36m in length using AIS.  However, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) only requires vessels of more than 300 tonnes on international voyages to operate an AIS system.  The reality of the Australian fishery is that there are very few vessels over this size fishing and hardly any fishing vessels are large enough to operate AIS so don’t appear on GFW’s map.

When SETFIA viewed the GFW site in south east Australia in April there were only four vessels (all less than 36m) appearing on the map. However, the reality is that there were likely more than 100 fishing in the region.

AIS can be turned off by fishing vessels.  GFW cite several case studies where they allege that they discovered illegal activities in international fisheries after the AIS was turned off.  GFW label the turning off of AIS data as, “going dark”.  This is a stretch given the rules in Australia that do not require AIS on small vessels.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), who manage Australia’s deepwater fisheries, operate a system called the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS).  This pre-dates GFW’s map by more than a decade.  All Commonwealth vessels must have VMS on all of the time.  In comparison the GFW system only monitors some vessels some of the time and sometimes analyses some of this data.  AFMA’s VMS runs monthly reports that investigate all vessels to ensure that they have not fished in marine parks or fisheries closures.  VMS operating rates are monitored constantly and any vessel whose VMS fails must report their position manually and must not leave port again until the system is working.  VMS operating rates are in the high 90%s.

A recent article in alleges that one of SETFIA member Austral Fishery’s vessels had “gone dark” near a marine park.  eNGO Oceana allege that, “During the period from July 2015 through September 2016, the [Austral] vessel appeared to turn off its AIS before entering the protected area, and appeared to immediately turn it back on after exiting on 10 separate occasions”.

David Carter, Austral’s CEO explained that “We generally keep AIS operating when in transit but once we’re fishing, its standard practice to turn it off”.  The crew switch off the AIS because “there are other commercial fisherman down there and exposing our location would compromise our commercial catch,” he said.  Mr Carter explained that in addition to VMS which was being constantly monitored by AFMA during the voyage in question they  also had two independent observers on board.   The fishery in which Austral’s vessel operates is Marine Stewarship Council accredited.  Mr Carter hit back at Oceana stating, “Any suggestion of wrong doing is hugely inappropriate and deeply offensive,”

In an open letter about the allegation against Austral AFMA stated, “While the report puts forward the case that turning off AIS means the vessel may be taking part in illegal activities, this is absolutely not the case for the Corinthian Bay referred to in your article. AFMA has checked on all of the data for the Corinthian Bay and we hold no concerns for their movements in the period in question.”

GFW claim that their system allows researchers access to data. However, CSIRO have completed a more detailed analysis of the impacts of trawling in South-East Australia using VMS data and the size of the net and this is available to Australian researchers.

A chart of North-West Australia shows the striking contrast in the scale of international and Australian fisheries with many more fishing vessels sitting outside the line (Australia’s EEZ) shown in yellow.

Although GFW has limited value in Australia it is an amazingly interesting and functional site and can be browsed here.