A team of international ocean scientists is urging policy makers around the world to start tracking every vessel on the planet — the same way ride-hailing service Uber tracks cars.
A report released today in the journal Science says the anonymity granted to vessels at sea creates perfect conditions for overfishing and the destruction of entire ocean ecosystems.
Boris Worm, a Dalhousie University ecologist and a senior author of the report, said the key may be a satellite tracking system known as AIS, or automatic identification system.
"Not enough vessels are using AIS transponders," he said. "And nobody watches whether they are kept on and used properly."
Worm said marine wildlife populations have gone down by half in the last generation alone.
Loss of marine wildlife
Illegal fishing accounts for the loss of millions of tonnes of marine wildlife.
Some countries are already using and enforcing AIS transponders. The EU, for example, requires every fishing vessel larger than 15 metres to carry AIS.
The United States requires all fishing vessels larger than 20 metres to use them when fishing in American waters. Canada, on the other hand, has exempted all fishing vessels from using AIS.
"They're only maximizing their potential when everyone has one and they have to be on," Worm said.
"You can see research vessels, you can see military vessels, you can see everybody. And you can get a complete picture of what goes on in a piece of ocean, where before it was a little bit like hide and seek."
Worm said the transponders could send back thousands of points of data. His team has created algorithms to measure and analyze the movements of a ship to help scientists determine what it's doing.
A vessel's movements can be measured and analyzed with enough accuracy to determine whether it's simply steaming through an area, or if it's actually fishing.
"This is not just a big brother tool to find the bad guys, it's also just revolutionary in terms of giving us an idea of what goes on in the ocean."