Helena Lyng Blak
7 weeks ago

How a Study in Fishing Reveals One Way AI Can Aid Humanity in Tackling the Climate Crisis

“Groundbreaking” study uses machine learning to reveal human activity at sea.
Big wave breaking on the sea
Leticia Lorenzo S / Shutterstock.com

A “groundbreaking” study, led by Global Fishing Watch and published earlier this year, offers remarkable insights into the world of industrial fishing, human activity at sea, and how it is changing.

Utilizing machine learning and satellite imagery, the study creates a global map of large vessel traffic and offshore infrastructure. The map is the first of its kind.

On land, we have detailed maps of almost every road and building on the planet. In contrast, growth in our ocean has been largely hidden from public view.
David Kroodsma

Revealing “Dark” Activity

By analyzing data spanning a five year period, the study reveals that 75% of the world’s industrial fishing vessels are hidden; they are not publicly tracked. 

“Publicly available data wrongly suggests that Asia and Europe have similar amounts of fishing within their borders, but our mapping reveals that Asia dominates—for every 10 fishing vessels we found on the water, seven were in Asia while only one was in Europe,” says co-author Jennifer Raynor, assistant professor of natural resource economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“By revealing dark vessels, we have created the most comprehensive public picture of global industrial fishing available.”

Additionally, the study reveals that 25% of transport and energy vessel activity are hidden as well.

The Ocean and Us

According to the study, more than one billion of the world’s population depend on the ocean as their primary source of food. 80% of all traded goods are shipped over the ocean. 30% of the world’s oil is produced offshore. 

And the ocean’s importance to the global economy, not to mention the lives of everyday people, is only escalating. The “blue economy”–the oceanic industry at large–is growing more rapidly than the overall global economy.

But despite humanity’s increasing reliance on the ocean for everything from food to trade and energy, data describing our activity at sea is lacking.

“A new industrial revolution has been emerging in our seas undetected—until now,” says David Kroodsma, director of research and innovation at Global Fishing Watch and co-lead author of the study. “On land, we have detailed maps of almost every road and building on the planet. In contrast, growth in our ocean has been largely hidden from public view. This study helps eliminate the blind spots and shed light on the breadth and intensity of human activity at sea.”

The United Nations reports that illegal, unregulated, or unreported (IUU) fishing accounts for one in every five fish caught, posing significant risks to climate, economy, and even human safety.

IUU fishing vessels are linked to a wide spectrum of crimes, not related to fishing, including drug and arms trafficking, piracy, and human trafficking.

Furthermore, the black market for fish, with an estimated value between $10-23 billion, significantly exacerbates the ecological crisis of overfishing, as highlighted by the BBC.

Beginning of a New Era?

Ultimately, the study–whose data and technology is open–and its mapping will aid the likes of governments and researchers in understanding industrial fishing activity and vessel traffic, and identifying illegal activity.

And it may improve estimates of greenhouse gas emissions, and be useful in guiding the development of wind energy projects or in monitoring the deterioration of marine environments resulting from oil exploration activities.

Moreover, the study exemplifies how cutting-edge technologies can pave the way for climate research and contribute to combating climate change.

Machine learning, an integral part of the study’s methodology, is a foundational aspect of artificial intelligence. It is the development and study of algorithms that can learn from data and through that, be generalized to solve problems the algorithm has not seen before.

The study and its resulting map is also an example of the power of open and free digital tools.

“Previously, this type of satellite monitoring was only available to those who could pay for it. Now it is freely available to all nations,” says Kroodsma. “This study marks the beginning of a new era in ocean management and transparency.”

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