Dalhousie University researchers have played an important part in bringing to life a 'revolutionary' new website that allows anyone with internet to monitor and track commercial fishing activity around the world, as well as potentially identify illegal fishing.

Unveiled last week, Global Fishing Watch is a joint project between Google, digital mapping non-profit SkyTruth and ocean conservation group Oceana. It's funded by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

The website allows users to view a world map with more than 35,000 major fishing vessels moving in "near real time," which is 72 hours from the present time.

Engineers behind Global Fishing Watch collaborated with researchers at Dalhousie University in the process of developing new ways to identify and hone in on fishing vessel activity, said Jacqueline Savitz, vice-president for U.S. and Global Fishing Watch at Oceana.

Global Fishing Watch will also eventually incorporate algorithms developed at Dalhousie, to provide a more complete picture of fishing activity on the high seas.

Fishing spies in the skies

Dalhousie scientists have spent about two years developing technology that uses satellite data to monitor and track commercial fishing.

International maritime law requires modern ships around the world have automated tracking systems that send satellites data on identification, position, course, and speed.

Leo app

A new app unveiled by actor Leonardo Di Caprio allows anyone with an internet connection to monitor international commercial fishing operations. (Associated Press, Global Fishing Watch)

Biology PhD student Kristina Boerder recognized the potential of using that satellite data to see how fishing vessels behave around marine protected areas and approached her advisors with the idea.

"You can track your favourite football player, your spouse or your kids with your smart phone, so there's a lot of tracking happening, but that's kind of ending at the water line," Boerder said.

"So it's hard to regulate and it's hard to put it in a context, for example, for conservation actions and for fish stock management."

Fishing out illegal activity 

Dal biologists worked with computer scientists at the university, including Canada Research Chair Stan Matwin.

Matwin said he and team member Erico N. de Souza figured out how to feed satellite data on fishing activity into newly developed machine-learning algorithms.

Machine learning is a subfield of computer science that pools existing data to make predictions.

Halibut Newfoundland CBC

A halibut quota owned by the Newfoundland and Labrador Industrial Development Corporation is being fished by a Nova Scotia company and processed outside the province. (CBC)

He said those algorithms can determine which of three types of fishing a ship is involved in (trawling, long-lining or purse seining), whether a ship is fishing or not, and if a ship is moving in an abnormal way or not.  

Using that information, it would be possible to distinguish illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activity.

Forbidden fishing in Canada

A 2013 World Ocean Review report estimated that 11 to 26 million tonnes of seafood is illegally caught on the high seas and attempts to monitor and curb commercial operations on water have been difficult, if not impossible.

 'The new Dalhousie algorithms can be a game changer for fisheries management and conservation.'

Kimbra Cutlip, Global Fishing Watch Blog

The amount of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in Canada as compared to other regions is likely fairly low, said Lesley Wilmot of Oceana Canada.

However, she said there are instances of unreported and unregulated bycatch, and a recent example of illegal fishing, which involved Atlantic halibut.

Last year several charges were laid against fishers in Nova Scotia who exceeded their allocated quota, with fines totaling more than $1 million.