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Google eye in the sky: How a spy satellite could prevent illegal fishing

Illegal fishing, which accounts for 30 percent of fish caught globally, has long been a thorn in the side of small nations who lack resources to monitor their waters. But a new technology puts that power in the hands of anyone with a computer.

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    Fishermen prepare to offload fish from a boat at the Bossaso harbor in Somalia's Puntland region. Officials estimate that Somalia loses $300 million dollars a year from illegal fishing.
    Karel Prinsloo/Adeso/Reuters
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Environmentalists hope a new satellite service that scans the earth’s seas from space in search of illegal fishing activity can act as a watchdog service, holding those who overfish or intrude on protected areas accountable for the adverse effects of their actions.

The Google-powered technology, which has been named Global Fishing Watch, monitors more than 35,000 commercial fishing vessels using public broadcast data and is available to anyone with an internet connection, The Washington Post reported. Such information allows governments, journalists, and citizens to track the movement of boats, making it easier for nations with limited resources to apprehend the fishermen illegally depleting their oceans.

“We have to find a way to enforce [fishing laws],” Secretary of State John Kerry told The Washington Post. “We have to find a way to monitor it. And that’s very difficult in vast oceans with resources that are [limited]. We’re trying to create accountability where there is very little.”

Actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio will unveil the new technology Thursday at a conference for ocean preservation in Washington, D.C.

Illegal fishing practices deplete local populations and threaten oceanic habitats while also harming regulated fishing and local economies. As the world’s population continues to grow, protecting fisheries becomes an important way to ensure a sustainable food source for nations around the world.

A group of environmentalists began using the satellite system on a smaller scale two years ago, acting as watchdogs for the practice of illegal fishing and alerting the proper local authorities when something look awry, Scientific American reported. These included members of the tech-environmentalists group SkyTruth, the nonprofit Oceana, and at Google Earth Outreach.

Together, they developed a technology that pulls public data from satellites and land-based receivers through the Automatic Identification System, allowing them to chart how ships have moved. For some in the industry, the oversight is a welcome advancement, as they also hope to curtail illegal competition that depletes and destroys regulated fisheries and protected areas. Now, Global Fishing Watch tracks between 10,000 and 20,000 vessels each day.

“American fisheries are among the most sustainable – and regulated – in the world,” Tim Sloane, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, told Scientific American. “[Illegal and unreported] fishing undercuts the steps American fishermen have taken to ensure that our fisheries are as healthy as they are.”

The technology isn’t a perfect solution. Some ships will shut their tracking services off, a move that’s only illegal in some countries where locator systems are required on large ships. Still, Global Fishing Watch has seen some initial success: After a tuna-fishing boat was seen illegally fishing in a protected area controlled by Kiribati, a Pacific island nation, the nation was able to levy a $1 million fine against the vessel’s operators, according to The Washington Post.

Those behind the technology hope that’s just the beginning, noting that Global Fishing Watch could be used to track ships for insurance purposes, or possibly to even find those who are trafficking drugs or people.

“We will be able to see a lot of information about who is fishing where,” Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for US oceans at Oceana, adding that the platform will help, told The Washington Post. She says the technology can “revolutionize the way the world views commercial fishing.”

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