Could Cape Cod become cod-free? Google seeks to curb overfishing.

On Thursday, NOAA abruptly cut short the fishing season for Atlantic cod, which has experienced severe population decline in recent years. That same day, Google Earth Outreach and two partner organizations released a prototype of a new online platform to track overfishing.

SkyTruth/Oceana/Google Earth Outreach
This Global Fishing Watch screenshot provides a view of the fishing activity in the Atlantic Ocean between late 2012 and early 2013.

Could Google save our world's threatened fishes?

In partnership with environmental nonprofit SkyTruth and advocacy group Oceana, Google has released a new technology platform called "Global Fishing Watch," which uses satellite data to show who's catching what out in the open ocean. The tracking technology is part of Google's larger mission of increasing accountability in a space that had previously been difficult to monitor.

So much of what happens out on the high seas is invisible, and that has been a huge barrier to understanding and showing the world what’s at stake for the ocean,” said John Amos, President and Founder of SkyTruth, in a release.

Resembling a Google Earth for the seas, Global Fishing Watch collects data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which stores GPS broadcasts of various ship locations. The platform differentiates fishing vessels from non-fishing and cargo ships using factors like speed and direction, and then maps fishing activity around the globe, taking note of how many hours each vessel spends fishing.

The release of the tech platform's prototype arrives on the heels of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) decision to close off most Northeastern US waters to cod fishing.

Fishery managers had already significantly reduced catch quotas on Atlantic cod in 2013: by 80 percent for Gulf of Maine cod and more than 60 percent for Georges Bank cod. Officials believed overfishing was a chief cause of low population numbers, but found that the stock was not rebounding sufficiently, even with revised catch limits.

"It might be environmental conditions that are responsible," Alan Risenhoover, director of the Sustainable Fisheries Office at NOAA, told the Monitor last month. "We get the best information we can, limit what we think is reasonable, and monitor it."

The lowered limits have led to frustration among cod fishermen who believe their livelihoods have been jeopardized by fishery management councils that don't have a full understanding of the root cause of cod population declines. 

On Monday, regional officials announced that abundance of the stock was only at about 4 percent of what they believe to be sustainable levels and enacted interim measures, closing off the whole of the Gulf of Maine and near-shore waters north of Provincetown, Mass., to cod fishing for six months beginning this past Thursday.

"We know these changes are not going to be easy for communities like Gloucester that have continually relied on cod," NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard said in a statement.

Bullard went on to say that managers and scientists need to work collaboratively with fishermen to find ways to adapt to this abrupt end to the fishing season while they attempt to boost populations of the Atlantic cod stock and other threatened fish species. 

The announcement by Google and its partners reiterated the importance of bringing together parties with an interest in saving marine ecosystems, but added into the mix another set of players that could help to stop illegal fishing: people that have generally remained outside the sphere of the fishing industry, other than the occasional salmon dinner.

“By engaging citizens to hold their elected officials accountable for managing fisheries sustainably and for enforcing fishing rules," said Oceana CEO Andrew Sharpless in the release, "Global Fishing Watch will help bring back the world’s fisheries, protecting and enhancing the livelihoods of the hundreds of millions of people who depend on ocean fisheries for food and income.”

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