Hidden Interaction Between Fishing Boats and Ocean Predators

Jim Crocker
10th March, 2024

Hidden Interaction Between Fishing Boats and Ocean Predators

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • In the northeast Pacific, up to 24% of marine predator encounters with fishing vessels are missed due to data gaps
  • Some species, like sharks, have an even higher unseen interaction rate with fishing vessels, up to 36%
  • Areas with high unseen fishing activity and low reported catches, like near 10°N, suggest underreporting in fishing data
The ocean is a bustling hub of human activity, not just a vast expanse of water. It's where we fish for our seafood, where ships crisscross carrying goods, and where energy is harnessed from the winds and waves. But this industrial use of the seas doesn't come without consequences, particularly for the wildlife that calls the ocean home. One of the most significant concerns is the risk to marine predators like sharks, tunas, and turtles from industrial fishing operations. Researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz have undertaken a study[1] to better understand the risks posed to marine wildlife by fishing activities. They've focused on the northeast Pacific, using the Automatic Identification System (AIS) to track vessels. AIS is a tracking system used on ships and by vessel traffic services that provides information on a ship's identity, type, position, course, speed, navigational status, and other safety-related details. This system is crucial for mapping fishing activity and assessing the potential overlap with marine predator habitats. However, AIS isn't foolproof. There are gaps in the data, caused by technical issues or even intentional disabling of the system. These gaps can make it look like there's less fishing activity in an area than there actually is, which in turn can underestimate the risk to wildlife. The study found that up to 24% of the total overlap between fishing vessel activity and marine predators was not visible due to these gaps. For some species, this unseen overlap was as high as 36%. This is particularly concerning for areas like the waters near 10°N, which had high unseen overlap with sharks, yet low reported shark catch, indicating a potential underreporting in self-reported datasets. The significance of this study is amplified by earlier research that has highlighted the plight of sharks and the ineffectiveness of some protective regulations. A previous study[2] reported an increase in shark fishing mortality despite legislation designed to protect these animals. Another study[3] revealed that a large percentage of the world's industrial fishing vessels are not publicly tracked, with significant fishing activity occurring in regions where monitoring is less transparent. This new research underscores the importance of considering unseen fishing activity when assessing the risk to marine wildlife and the need for improved monitoring and transparency in fishing operations. Furthermore, the method used by the researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz to uncover unseen fishing activity could be a game-changer for wildlife conservation. By accounting for the gaps in AIS data, they were able to provide a more accurate picture of the human-wildlife risk. This approach can also be seen as an extension of the work done in another study[4] that used machine learning to identify illicit fishing behaviors in places where monitoring is challenging. The methods used in this recent study involve analyzing AIS data to map the movements of fishing vessels and then comparing this information to the known habitats and movement patterns of 14 different marine predators. By doing so, the researchers were able to identify areas where the risk of interaction—and potential harm—is greatest. This kind of mapping is crucial for informing conservation efforts and for developing strategies that can help minimize the impact of fishing on vulnerable species. In conclusion, the research from the University of California, Santa Cruz not only sheds light on the hidden risks that industrial fishing poses to marine predators but also provides a clearer understanding of where and how conservation efforts can be most effectively applied. By taking into account the unseen activities of fishing vessels, we can move toward more transparent and sustainable marine fisheries that protect the ocean's top predators. This study is a vital step forward in the ongoing effort to balance the needs of human industry with the preservation of our planet's rich and diverse wildlife.

EcologyMarine Biology


Main Study

1) Unseen overlap between fishing vessels and top predators in the northeast Pacific.

Published 8th March, 2024


Related Studies

2) Global shark fishing mortality still rising despite widespread regulatory change.


3) Satellite mapping reveals extensive industrial activity at sea.


4) Fishery catch records support machine learning-based prediction of illegal fishing off US West Coast.


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