Researchers Analyzed over 22 Billion Shipping Positions to Map the Global Footprint of Industrial Fishing

Caitlin Dempsey


Most commercial shipping fleets now carry an automatic identification system (AIS) onboard.  This technology transmits a ship’s unique identification, position, course, and speed in order to prevent collisions with other vessels.  A team of researchers from Global Fishing Watch, the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project, University of California Santa Barbara, Dalhousie University, SkyTruth, Google, and Stanford University were able to use this data along with satellite feeds, machine learning techniques, and other common ship tracking technology to develop the most comprehensive and highest resolution database of where fishing activity is occurring in the world’s oceans.

To map out global fishing activity, over 22 billion AIS messages between 2012 and 2016 were analyzed to identify over 70,000 seagoing vessels that included more than 75% of commercial fishing ships larger than 36 meters in length. The study found that over 55 percent of the ocean is currently being harvested for fish.  This represents a geographic area four times larger than all of the world’s land-based agriculture combined.  This is an astonishing number given that global fish consumption represents only 1.2% of all caloric intake by humans in the world.  Five countries account for 85% of fishing activity on the high seas: China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea (more: interactive graphic showing fishing by flag state).

The research has been published in the journal, Science: “Tracking the global footprint of fisheries.”

The authors of this study have made their datasets publicly available for anyone within to download, visualize and analyze the global footprint of fishing:

“By publishing the data and analysis, we aim to increase transparency in the commercial fishing industry and improve opportunities for sustainable management,” said lead author, David Kroodsma, the Director of Research and Development at Global Fishing Watch.

Download Industrial Fishing Data

The datasets (with the exception of proprietary data) can be downloaded from Global Fishing Watch (free registration required).

Juan Mayorga of the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project and the University of California Santa Barbara notes that this data can help governments and agencies create more sustainable fishing:

Data of this detail gives governments, management bodies and researchers the insights they need to make transparent and well-informed decisions to regulate fishing activities and reach conservation and sustainability goals.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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