Google is Getting Serious About Marine Conservation

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and wife Wendy Schmidt have been big into ocean conservation for some time. But now Google itself has upped its involvement in saving the oceans by co-creating and financially backing a tool to help conservationists spot illegal fishing.

Google’s mapping software has always shown potential for use in conservation efforts. But the tech giant’s latest project, a collaboration with environmental nonprofits Oceana and SkyTruth, is the coolest development to surface so far. Global Fishing Watch analyzes positioning data transmitted by major ships to approximate all ocean fishing activity on the globe, which could one day allow anyone with an Internet connection to crack down on rampant illegal fishing. 

Aside from creating some amazing visualizations, the program also marks an increase in Google’s involvement in marine work and environmentalism, a major project in tandem with two activist groups. The company gave an undisclosed financial commitment to the project, along with providing engineering help and use of its software and servers.  

Related - Schmidt Ocean Institute: Grants for Marine and River Conservation

The program works by starting with what’s called automatic identification system (AIS) data, transmitted by ships to communicate unique ID numbers and positioning data that’s then tracked by satellites. But AIS is not only for fishing ships, so that means the data set includes billions of signals from all active ships of a certain size. The team was able to filter that data, analyzing two years worth of ships' behavior to create an algorithm that can detect the likelihood that a ship is fishing.  

The system has its limitations, and the current prototype only looks at past data, but Google engineers plan to build it out to include near-real-time activity that the public and other stakeholders can monitor for ships fishing in protected areas, for example. 

The project echoes another initiative announced earlier in the year, Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring system created by Google, the World Resources Institute, and other conservation groups. And in the past, Google has collaborated with Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Stanford University, and other researchers to add ocean conservation data to Google Earth.

Related: Google’s Quiet, Multimillion Dollar Academic Research Program

But this is a complex project, and one with a distinct activist goal. It makes you wonder if the company is just dabbling in another use for its mapping tools, or if it plans to become more of a partner and funder for environmental nonprofits down the line. 

It wouldn’t be alone. Ocean funding among tech philanthropists and other large donors is booming these days, with Paul Allen, James Simons, and others following in the footsteps of funders like Packard and Moore and getting involved in marine research and protection.

When it comes to oceans, it’s understandable that companies and billionaires trafficking in data would see it as an appropriate fit for their good guy stuff. There’s tremendous, increasing potential to conquer geographic challenges and begin to make sense of the vast amounts of information surrounding ocean health.

People might not always like Google’s ever-present eyes, but along with its deep pockets, the company could be a serious asset for environmentalists. 

Related: Paul Allen’s Marine Giving Takes Shape Amid a Growing Ocean Push by Billionaire Funders