ON SEPTEMBER 15, 2016, at the Our Ocean Conference in Washington DC, Global Fishing Watch (GFW) was launched.
This was the same conference that in 2014 the Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna, through his chief of staff Elizabeth Wright Koteka, announced to the world, to thunderous applause, that the Cook Islands will have 50 nautical mile fishery buffer zones around each of the country’s 15 islands as a part of our own Marae Moana marine park.
The GFW online platform uses Automatic Identification System (AIS) satellite data to create the first global view of commercial fishing. At the 2016 conference, hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, DC, actor and ocean advocate Leonardo Di Caprio, whose foundation provided significant funding for GFW, announced in his remarks to that this is now free and open to the public, and Secretary Kerry personally received a demonstration of the tool.
We have already seen an example of what the GFW website can show us here in the Cook Islands. The GFW map shown in the Cook Islands News on January 5th 2017 was posted onto Facebook by New Zealand Journalist, Michael Field . His explanatory caption was, “People in the Cook Islands wonder why they have no fish left. These are the Chinese longlining tracks for the 12 months of 2016.”
The Ministry of Marine Resources responded to this post, saying, “Those tracks by themselves mean little. They do not relate directly to actual fishing days, nor the amount caught.”
However, as these are fishing boats licenced to fish in the Cook Islands, we can be fairly sure this is fishing activity. The Global Fishing Watch organisation uses the speed, direction and course changes of vessels to determine probable fishing activity. These tracks are only for nine vessels, which is only 25 per cent of the number of foreign-based longline vessels licenced to fish in our waters in 2016. Perhaps the others do not have AIS transmitters fitted.
The GFW website points out a number of potential uses for information from their fishing activity maps:
• Citizens can see for themselves how their fisheries are being effectively managed and hold leaders accountable for long-term sustainability.
• Seafood suppliers can monitor the vessels they buy fish from.
• Journalists and the public can act as watchdogs to improve the sustainable management of global fisheries.
• Responsible fishermen can show they are adhering to the law.
• Researchers can address important fishery management questions.
These maps also allow you to see the boundaries for all the world’s marine protected areas. So, once the 50nm fishery buffer zones for our own Marae Moana Marine Park, as promised by our prime minister, are legislated by government, the boundaries of these zones will be able to be included in the GFW maps.
This would allow anyone the ability to see if any fishing boat is fishing inside these fishery buffer zones, and be a great improvement on the current levels of transparency. It would also put more pressure on the Ministry of Marine Resources to prosecute fishing boats that fish inside these buffer zones.
Global Fishing Watch is not an advocacy or enforcement agency. It is a tool to increase transparency and help enable awareness and discussion around fishery issues.
One deficiency in the GFW system at present is that not all fishing vessels are required to have AIS transmitters on board. However, many of the largest vessels that catch a disproportionately large amount of the fish are required to do so by the International Maritime Authority.
In addition, many countries and intergovernmental agencies like Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) are creating AIS requirements within their waters, so there should be an increase in AIS use in the coming years. For example, as of May 31, 2014, all European Union flagged fishing vessels over 15 metres in length are required to be equipped with AIS and as of March 1, 2016, all commercial US-flagged fishing vessels over 19.8 metres are required to be equipped with AIS.
If anyone would like to explore the maps and try tracking fishing operations in the Cook Islands themselves, go to the Global Fishing Watch website at http://globalfishingwatch.org. There is a tutorial online which shows you the basics.