• Recovery from COVID-19 will require greater transparency in fishing activity.
  • Pandemic has meant surveillance has been suspended
  • Hi-tech innovations offer potential solutions.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, its myriad negative consequences are slowly becoming clearer. While many of the impacts have been unmistakable, with entire countries locked down, some are playing out far away from our homes and shorelines, in the open ocean.

The current fisheries monitoring system is already under stress, allowing for up to one in five wild-caught fish to be illegally caught each year. Any relaxation in the monitoring and surveillance of commercial fisheries could allow for more illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing which, in the Pacific alone, is estimated to already cost Pacific nations $4.3 billion to $8.3 billion per year in loss of gross revenues.

Ocean-capture fisheries remain subject to levels of lawlessness that are largely unthinkable when it comes to land-based food production. Fishery observers, who are placed onboard vessels to monitor fishing activity, help mitigate this by collecting independent data on catch, fishing effort, and compliance with conservation management measures. Their work is difficult and the conditions dangerous - the risks extend to death, as a recent report shows. But the information they provide is integral to responsible ocean management, making fishery observers one of the most vital roles in the fishing industry.

Since COVID-19 many onboard observer programs have been suspended. The decision to suspend these programs, designed to protect humans and mitigate the spread of the virus, is an understandable one - but it comes at a cost. By reducing hazards to observers at sea, we potentially endanger the resource they were meant to protect -- a resource that is vital to the long term security and resilience of many island and coastal states.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without healthy oceans - but they're more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

The question remains: how can we build ocean resilience while implementing robust monitoring methods and ensuring benefits to those that rely on its resources?

Last month, Global Fishing Watch shared some of the impacts COVID-19 is having on global fishery activity, which is down nearly 10% since the pandemic was declared, compared to the previous two-year average. In Europe, one of the regions hardest hit, some countries are experiencing sustained reductions by 50% or more, relative to recent years. Economies will soon face recession as a result of business closures and stay-at-home orders. Concerns about national budgets may mean a reduction in spending on ocean matters, as governments prioritize the needs of their people and economies above all. And such reductions will likely affect the sustainable use of the ocean.

Transparency is critical in times of disruption


What the last few months have made starkly evident is that we, as a community of nations, were ill-prepared to handle such a pandemic. Our global fisheries industry - an example of humankind’s interconnectedness with nature - was overwhelmingly distressed as a result. We must now explore how to strengthen supply chains so they can withstand subsequent strategic shocks. Further pandemics are predicted and we have the incalculable jeopardy of climate change upon us; societies must radically rethink how to manage risk and reduce their vulnerability to such crises.

One way to manage the coronavirus’ effects on global fisheries is through the increased use of digital technology. COVID-19 tracking applications and sophisticated data modeling have been central to many countries’ strategies for the long-term management of infection rates. And these systems don’t just apply to public health; artificial intelligence (AI) and technology are now considered fundamental in bolstering resilience across human systems as well as harvesting resources – and fisheries are no exception.

Don’t let the ocean go dark: Transparency and technology can shed light on human activity at sea

Increasing use of technology and machine learning can deliver efficient, safe, scalable, and cost-effective ways to support countries’ efforts to ensure fisheries compliance. And like track and trace, it works best with more subscribers.

New AI-powered electronic monitoring systems can play a vital role in maintaining data pipelines, especially where observer programs are vulnerable to disruption, and they can be scaled up to allow coverage on vessels that do not yet have observers onboard.

Global Fishing Watch’s map tracks the movements of about 65,000 large, industrial fishing vessels all over the world in near real time
Global Fishing Watch’s map tracks the movements of about 65,000 large industrial fishing vessels all over the world in near real time.
Image: Global Fishing Watch

Other opportunities exist, too, from expanding the interpretation of satellite data fueled by machine learning, to the development of enhanced drones that can help curtail illegal fishing in regions where COVID-19 has reduced conventional marine patrols. We have seen sustainable fishers connect to local consumers via applications when restaurants and markets are closed.

Increased transparency of information is key to modernizing management of fisheries

In a time of unprecedented disruption, when the livelihoods and food security of so many face mounting vulnerabilities, the illegal exploitation of marine resources is unconscionable. While there may be challenges when it comes to the oversight and management of global fish stocks, those issues are solvable.

Transparency of information is fundamental to the success of our global system and will help generate the behavioral change needed to ensure thriving fish populations and the security of our ocean. The shift towards transparency needs to be accelerated so that those operating in the shadows have fewer places to hide. All stakeholders in this key sector must abandon the complacency which has fueled illegal fishing for the past two decades; we must now focus on rewarding compliant behavior by establishing incentives for those who follow the rules.

Global Fishing Watch continues to develop its monitoring platform to ensure the very best tools are available for free. In the coming months we will roll out new map functions that will help monitor transshipment activities, detect ‘dark targets’, and track small-scale vessels. We expect more countries to partner with Global Fishing Watch during 2020 and help build ocean resource resilience through data sharing and open collaboration.