The following is a conversation between Tony Long, CEO of Global Fishing Watch, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: A decade ago, building an open access picture of global fishing activity was out of reach. But thanks to advances in satellite technology and machine learning, Global Fishing Watch is now making it a reality.
They believe that a healthy, productive, and resilient ocean where transparency drives fair and effective governance of marine resources is vital to biodiversity and sustainable development. And here to discuss their work with us is Tony Long, the CEO of Global Fishing Watch.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Tony.
Tony: Hello, welcome. Glad to be here.
Denver: Yeah. Share with listeners the background of the organization and how it first got started.
Tony: So Global Fishing Watch was born from an idea that was a collaboration between Oceana, SkyTruth and Google, three organizations all geared to really understand what was happening out on the ocean. And they realized that fishing activity was posing a real threat to the sustainability of the ocean’s resources, and indeed the livelihoods of millions of people.
So they set up the test to see if they could build a map of the world’s fishing activity. And that’s what they did with Global Fishing Watch. And I’ve been here now for six years, first CEO, and we’re making big headway.
Denver: Fantastic. Let’s zoom out just for a moment, and we know that the health of our ocean is under immense pressure, both from intense human activity that you just talked about and also from climate change. As a result, what are some of the threats to the ocean as you see it?
Tony: I think the most straightforward threat is: you can’t manage what you can’t see. So all of those threats that you can describe, whether it be climate change itself, plastics, pollution, overfishing, or the destruction of coral reefs, and it’s because we don’t understand where and to what degree this is happening that we can’t manage it.
So the biggest threat is just not understanding what’s happening out there. And we really need to provide that information that people can make decisions and just reduce the pressure on the ocean. And it’s under a huge amount of pressure at the moment from that human activity that we’ve discussed.
Denver: Yeah, well, you’re right. It’s probably the least observed part of our planet. Talk a little bit about our ability to observe it, and that is probably through the satellite technology and machine learning. And the role that they’ve played– how is that helping you achieve your mission?
Tony: Well, you are right. It is the least observed part of our planet. And the strange thing is there’s thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth each day, all beaming back a huge amount of information from the remotest parts of the ocean. The real key is: Are we able to sort of take that data and make sense of it and make it available to people that can make a difference to how we manage and govern the ocean?
So when you look at a scale, it’s very difficult to do this from decks of ships. Everybody needs to contribute and somehow we need to bring that data together. But satellites are probably the first port of call because of that global reach they offer us. And the different types of satellite will allow us to detect different types of opportunity.
But before I go into the detail of what those things are, that vast amount of data, you’re not going to have enough humans focused on working out what we should be looking at. So you have to enhance this with machine learning in order to highlight where the risks are and where the humans need to focus their attention.
“…if we’re going to build a global system of monitoring, it has to be one that’s both scalable in the sense of covering that vast amount of water, but also affordable. And this is part of the reason why Global Fishing Watch believes their mission is the right one. If we can create the knowledge and understanding of what’s happening out on the water and provide it publicly and for free, we think that this is what’s going to really tip the balance in understanding how and what is happening out at sea, and how we can change the way we govern our ocean through that sort of transparent nature of information.”
Denver: Yeah, it’s really interesting you say that because I guess we’ve gotten to the point where we almost have too much data now, and as you say, through machine learning and other things, we really need to narrow it down to figure out what’s really important and what’s really worthwhile.
Tony: That’s right. I mean, it is a case of, if we’re going to build a global system of monitoring, it has to be one that’s both scalable in the sense of covering that vast amount of water, but also affordable. And this is part of the reason why Global Fishing Watch believes their mission is the right one.
If we can create the knowledge and understanding of what’s happening out on the water and provide it publicly and for free, we think that this is what’s going to really tip the balance in understanding how and what is happening out at sea, and how we can change the way we govern our ocean through that sort of transparent nature of information.
Denver: And one of the ways you do that, if I have this right, is through map visualizations. What are they, and what are the key features of these map visualizations?
Tony: As always, a picture paints a thousand words. So anytime you look at our map, you’ll see fishing vessels on our map. And in order to understand really what’s happening behind that vessel, there’s a whole set of other questions you’ve got to ask.
So it’s not just merely the fact you can detect the vessel, you need to understand whether it’s actually been authorized, and if it has been authorized, to what extent? Where can it fish? Who can it fish? Where has it been landing its fish? Who is it meeting with at sea in order to transfer fish to allow that vessel to keep fishing? Meanwhile, the fish goes back to port to enter the market.
So this amount of data, if you are trying to do that manually, it just doesn’t work. So Global Fishing Watch is trying to provide a very easy user interface that as you click on that vessel, you’ll get that information and make it really clear to the user what truly that vessel should be doing. And then you can make a decision about whether it’s been fishing illegally or pushing the limits of its authorizations.
Denver: Wow, that’s really interesting. So the difference between legal and illegal fishing, I guess it depends on where it’s fishing and what that vessel is, and it can be different for every single vessel, and that’s why you need to get that very discreet information. Is that right?
Tony: That’s exactly correct. This term: illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing is a very difficult one to define very easily. But the reality is the regulations that have been put in place to hold these vessels to account are often not implemented because the authorities that can implement them don’t have that information.
So each country will define what’s legal and what’s allowed, but quite often, it becomes very difficult for them to define what the vessel’s been doing. And one of the theories that we have is like a reversal of the burden of responsibility here. So when I fly into the U.S., for instance, I have to produce my passport, my visa, some money, prove where I’m going, why I’m going there, and then I’ve got a return flight.
And if I can’t evidence that, then I’m asked additional questions. In a way, what we are doing by using transparency is applying that to fishermen in order they can demonstrate their good behavior and those that are demonstrating bad behavior quickly start to filter out in the system. Does that make sense?
Denver: Yeah, it makes an awful lot of sense. Yeah. That’s a good parallel that you just drew there.
Tell us a little bit about the Open Ocean Project, an exciting project. How do you think that’s going to transform the way we see the ocean, Tony, and the way we protect it?
Tony: So the Open Ocean Project is a huge shift in the amount of data that’s going to be made available to the public for free. Thanks to The Audacious Project and the TED team, we had this opportunity to join a cohort of 10 other really good projects and pitch how we think the world needs to change.
And it comes back to that point I made earlier. You can’t manage what you can’t see. And what we’ve realized with Global Fishing Watch is as we’re presenting that data around fishing vessels, there’s a whole set of other data we extract in order to see those fishing vessels clearly. And we’ve realized that this data that we’re extracting is actually highly valuable in itself.
So we want to map all human activity out at sea– industrial human activity, so we can extend the picture you see in Global Fishing Watch to include all of the industrial fishing vessels, and start to make inroads into those smaller scale vessels. We’ll highlight really clearly where these vessels have been turning off their trackers…so what we tend to refer to as the dark vessels, the ones that either don’t have trackers or are trying to evade monitoring.
But we’re going to add to that: aquaculture, oil and gas installations, wind farms, in order that we can truly understand that footprint of human activity and make the best choices for ocean governance in the future.
Denver: What’s your timetable on that? I mean, do you have any milestones along the way here in the coming years?
Tony: Well, we’ve set ourselves an ambitious timeline. It is an Audacious Project after all, but within the next five years, we think we can map those areas out.
Denver: Okay. Audacious Project, audacious timeline. No question about it.
I’d always thought, Tony, that fishing on the high seas was somehow governed by international bodies. I mean, that’s what somebody might think, but it truly is a country-by-country arrangement. And how do you go about partnering with governments?
Tony: Well, let me just clarify a couple points there because the terminology around what happens out at sea is important. So you just said the high seas. The high seas are the global commons. Everybody is responsible for what happens out on the high seas, yet there’s no one nation or even a conglomeration of nations that are really taking responsibility for it. So that “high seas” area is a real challenge at the moment.
And you may have heard recently that after 20 years of talking, there’s finally a treaty, the conservation of the high seas when it comes to ocean resources. And that is the next big hope to really, truly bring nations together to monitor, control and govern the high seas. So that’s the first point. Is that clear?
Denver: Mm-hmm. Yep.
Tony: Yeah. And then when you go into the economic zones of the country, which in all honesty is where most of the fishing is taking place, so this 200-mile zone that extends out from the coastlines of countries, that is a factor of the country’s own territory. So they are responsible for what happens.
Some countries have chosen to fish those areas heavily, and they outsource the fishing. So they’ll sell licenses to foreign nations to come and fish their waters. Others have a slightly more closed routine where they tend to fish the waters themselves and take the economy that way. And then others have actually closed their economic zones to fishing, certainly commercial fishing, in order to set up effectively a marine-protected area.
So each and every government is different and that is one of the complexities to the whole situation of understanding what’s happening because they all have slightly different regulations that need to be implemented.
Denver: And Tony, when you look at the bad behavior, where are the hotspots around the world where that is occurring, and who are some of the culprits?
Tony: Yeah. So it’s not always a regional issue. I mean, one of the examples we often cite is the fact that using satellite observation, tracking data, our machine learning and some great partnerships with groups like Planet and the European Space Agency, we took a deep dive effectively into the waters in North Korea and discovered a fleet of more than a thousand vessels fishing that area illegally in contravention to UN sanctions there.
And each year, we calculated that was about half a billion dollars’ worth of squid going missing. So that would be classed as a hotspot with that fleet. But the reality is, the biggest fleets now can fish globally. This is part of the problem. The industrialization of fishing means the vessels can go further and deeper and fish for longer. So the hotspots change depending on where the fishery is and what the market’s demanding at the time.
Denver: There is, we know, forced labor on shipping vessels. Do you have the capability of detecting that?
Tony: So the detection of forced labor is a real challenge, and there’s ethical challenges behind it. So if you are going to use data to highlight which vessels may have bonded labor, or forced labor on, you’ve got to be very clear what measurements you use in order to train the system. So we have been doing some work on that.
And we are very aware of what the data set is that we’re using in order to spot that potential. And we’re getting good indications that within the constraints of that model, we can see vessels that are likely to have bonded labor on. But it’s still quite a lot of work to do to really get into the ethical side of what we’re doing and making sure that it’s not a biased data set.
“…the proprietary nature of data is something that all businesses wrestle with. That knowledge is power to some people, but in the world of fisheries, I truly believe that shared knowledge is where the power is. So this open data is where I think the future of ocean governance is.”
Denver: Oh yeah, absolutely. There’s always those privacy issues and a lot of other things that go around it, I am absolutely sure.
Give us an example. I mean, you’ve touched on one already, but give us an example of something that has changed because of the work that Global Fishing Watch has done.
Tony: Well, I think the first significant shift … I mean, I left the Navy just over 10 years ago. And in those 10 years, the word “transparency” is now synonymous with almost every meeting, symposium, workshop. People are understanding that this open data methodology could be what unlocks ocean governance in the future.
So the biggest thing that’s changed by Global Fishing Watch being there and available and providing this data for people that otherwise wouldn’t have it, is that transparency is now definitely on the agenda, and it’s seen as a realistic hope for how the ocean can be governed. So that’s a significant shift because…
Denver: Yeah, it is.
Tony: Yeah, you’ll know from any of the businesses that you speak to, that the proprietary nature of data is something that all businesses wrestle with. That knowledge is power to some people, but in the world of fisheries, I truly believe that shared knowledge is where the power is. So this open data is where I think the future of ocean governance is. So that’s personally what I think has been the biggest shift.
Denver: Let me pick up on that a little bit, and tell us about the collaboration that Global Fishing Watch has with other like-minded groups.
Tony: Yeah. Well, that’s another thing I’ve learned from being in the Navy, that to some degree, you need to retain your own ability to maximize your own data sets, but you very quickly realize that everyone’s doing the same. So if we can bring that data together, some of the parts become greater than the whole.
So quite often when we talk about technology, unless people are really familiar with the types of technology that we’re using, it all looks very familiar. But most people have got a different, like unique selling point. So some people have got more latent live data; others have got some like specialist data, maybe on very climate-focused issues.
Others are very good at looking at maybe scraping the internet for beneficial ownership. So I really believe that rather than competing with each other for funding on a narrow spoke, if we can bring that together, it’s going to be far more attractive for funders to realize that they’re getting a much bigger bang for the buck. So…
Denver: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tony: I mean, I can expand a little bit more on one of the big collaborations we’ve got, if that’s helpful.
Denver: It would be helpful. Please do.
Tony: Yeah. So anyone who looks at our website and those of our partners, they’ll see a thing called the Joint Analytical Cell, and they’ll… it might not be the most beautiful name in the world, but the idea is that it highlights what it is. It’s analysis and it’s done joint, which is a military term for shared, so together.
So groups have come together under this moniker to work together. So that includes Global Fishing Watch, a group called AI2 Skylight, Trygg Mat Tracking, the International MCS Network, and C4ADS. So there’s five of us working under that moniker. Each has a slightly different unique selling point, but together we provide a very holistic answer.
So we’ve actually got the interest of governments on this. So we are working very closely at the moment with the U.S., the UK, and Canada, to provide some core funding to this idea in order that we, like the Global Fishing Watch model, we can make sure those people that do not have that analytical capability can have access to it in order to better patrol and govern their waters.
“…but I think what we’re seeing is an international community that’s starting to realize just how important the ocean is to our planet. So whether it be climate change and the role that the ocean plays in mitigating climate change and how we protect it, to the fact that the fisheries are an everlasting resource if properly fished and sustainably fished… So we are seeing a shift. At the same time, it’s not fast enough.”
Denver: I think I remember this correctly, but I believe it was the Sustainable Development Goal number 14, which was Life Below Water. And I was just wondering, as you look at the work you’re doing in these collaborations, how is that measuring up to the objectives of the SDGs and the 2030 goals?
Tony: Yeah, so these goals are always a challenge to achieve. You can imagine the amount of moving parts behind delivering something on here. So SDG 14 is indeed, as you said, and combatting illegal fishing is a significant part of that SDG. Well, we certainly haven’t done that yet, but I’m definitely a glass half- full type of person.
There are some huge challenges, but I think what we’re seeing is an international community that’s starting to realize just how important the ocean is to our planet. So whether it be climate change and the role that the ocean plays in mitigating climate change and how we protect it, to the fact that the fisheries are an everlasting resource if properly fished and sustainably fished.
So we are seeing a shift. At the same time, it’s not fast enough. We have to hold countries accountable for their responsibilities, and try and demonstrate how they can do better. And that’s the biggest challenge here. Can we get the countries to really hold themselves to account when there are other countries that choose not to? And it’s a competitive field, so it is a challenge. It’s a business. It’s a business after all.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. How do you maintain financial sustainability? I know you were an Audacious Project awardee, but you’re providing this information and access to this data for free. So what’s your business model in terms of going forward and really generating the kind of revenue to make that available?
Tony: Well, the good thing about a system like Global Fishing Watch, because of the way we’ve set ourselves up, we’re relatively inexpensive as a technology platform if you were to compare us to a private version of what we do. But this is the role of philanthropy, the philanthropists that will care about the ocean, they’re also capable of moving fast.
They recognize what Oceana, SkyTruth and Google had put together here and saw the opportunity. So we got a great set of founding funders that allowed us to build up the model around Global Fishing Watch, and then generate the shift.
Now, what the change I made when I arrived was rather than just purely producing the map, which is incredibly important, we started a system of program where we would work more closely with the countries in order to try and accelerate the shift and get those policy changes people need in order to truly govern the ocean. And that’s where we’ve started to build it up.
So up until recently, we’ve been heavily reliant on private philanthropy and foundations, but they’ve done a wonderful job getting us where we are. Audacious has given us the technical support that we need. So that map is going to exist now, thanks to Audacious, and it’s going to be A1. It’s going to be top-level, gold standard map.
What we need to do now is accelerate the change in the countries using that data to govern the ocean. So in straightforward terms, we will need philanthropy still because they move fastest. They can help us focus where we should be happening. That’s still there. But as I hinted, three governments are now starting to work with us.
Canada has supported us in the past, directly. We’ve had relationships with Japan, even Luxembourg. And what we’re trying to do now is take a shift to get like a durability model, as we call it, the data durability model, where countries will pay for the baseline map and data behind it in order that between them, they can pay for this being available for everyone, free for all. And it’s a very small amount of money in comparison.
And then finally, we need to find other models as well. So we have public-private partnerships where quite a lot of data that we would otherwise pay a lot of money for is being provided for free. So groups like MDA in Canada have done that, Planet has done it in the past, and we’ll hopefully do it again. So that’s the model, and it seems to be working.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. So interesting. What’s it like to lead a tech nonprofit? And I think all nonprofits are beginning to become tech nonprofits because they have to. But you really are at your core. I mean, your theory of change is really revolving around technology.
How do you believe, Tony, the culture differs in an organization like that than from your standard bricks-and-mortar nonprofit organization?
Tony: Yeah, it is different. And we are also growing, which is also meaning that within Global Fishing Watch, we’re having to deal with a certain amount of change. But they were set up by SkyTruth, who were a tech nonprofit looking at oil spills on the ocean. Google, which everybody knows the Silicon Valley model.
And because that’s where the technology grew from, we very much pick up on that model. So my tech team would say a fail fast. We want to explore, experiment, test, and when we realize it’s not working, withdraw and try again.
Now I’ve probably brought in a little slightly more British conservatism to that in the sense of like just trying to slow down and really choose where we are heading. But that model still exists, and we have to, because tech moves so quickly. And that’s probably what defines us from other NGOs that don’t hold the tech, is that they don’t realize quite how fast you have to move if you’re going to exploit the tech.
And that ultimately means you spend money, and then it’s wasted. So that’s why we’re trying to get the balance between that sort of high-rev tech piece against the more methodical policy side that we’re also now trying to balance.
Denver: As you try to balance it, what’s your philosophy of leading an organization like this? And if I remember correctly, you were pretty much a remote organization before we all became remote organizations, so you probably have a greater understanding of that as well. But do you have a philosophy of leadership?
Tony: Yeah, we are remote. So I’ve got to say this is one of the most pleasurable things I’ve ever done, is lead Global Fishing Watch. I’d sort of compare it back to the high points in my naval career when I was in command of a frigate. This is, you’re out around the world. You have sole responsibility for 200 people, and a mission that at the time Her Majesty The Queen, had given me an “off I go.”
And the responsibility you feel is huge. Now you cannot be an expert on everything that’s happening on the ship. You have to learn to delegate and bring people… the very best out in people. And that’s the way we’ve tried to do it at Global Fishing Watch. I mean, the ethos was there when I arrived, which made it an easy fit. But as we’ve grown from the sort of 20 people we were back in 2017, to the 75 or so we are now…and we’re globally dispersed. So it’s not only remote.
I’ve got people on almost every continent of it. But different language barriers, different ways of working. And to try and have that remote idea plus offer people responsibility and delegation and provide the supervision, you have to be able to share and be clear with each of your employees what’s needed. And that’s the emphasis you’re trying to get, is we all feel shared ownership, shared awareness of what’s happening, and hopefully shared responsibility for the delivery of the model.
Denver: Mm-hmm. How would you describe the public awareness and the public engagement around oceans and the importance of sustainable development?
Tony: Well, I think the ocean is on the agenda for everybody now. I mean, I travel a little bit too much, but almost every country that I arrive in, you’ll see headlines that talk about climate change in the ocean. Fisheries I think is a little bit more challenging because it’s extremely complex to understand what fish is arriving on your plate and where it’s from.
A cod is from several different regions. It’s not just one fish from one area. So trying to communicate to people the true threat to the ocean resources and center fisheries is, I think, is much more difficult. And of course every nation is difficult in the sense of their need for that seafood. So in the U.S. and the UK and Europe, we can probably make some choices in the sense of the protein sources we choose to eat.
But there are other countries in the world that do not have that choice. So trying to communicate to the world that this is not just a national problem, it’s an international issue, that we owe it to the people that really need these resources to make sure they’re there. And we all want them to be sustainable. So it’s that balance between communicating the true threat, but the economic benefits, as well as the long-term food security benefits, is a complex one, and it’s different in every country.
Denver: Mm-hmm. Finally, Tony, what has you really excited at the moment about the future plans and initiatives of Global Fishing Watch, as well as future technology? As you say tech moves fast. What really gets your blood going?
Tony: Well, as I think I hinted in an earlier answer, that Global Fishing Watch offers so many opportunities in The Audacious Project as a real pivot point for us in the sense of what we can do with our data. And I know I’m going to repeat myself slightly because what I enjoy most is making sure that what we provide is the right level of data at the right price.
That means it’s scalable. So I often use the analogy. Many of us have very fancy laptops that cost thousands of pounds, yet we’re only really doing word processing on them and the odd phone call now. And you can get away with a much cheaper model, but for some reason we choose not to.
Now somehow we’ve got to draw that balance when we’re providing that tech. So just getting that balance right excites me because there’s challenges. But the reality is, is that partnership and seeing how with this technology provided to people, how suddenly something changes. So the Joint Analytical Cell is one piece, where what seemed to be rival companies just a year or two ago are now working together.
But equally when we started to work with countries that just didn’t have a way of sharing that information between each other, that scientific link that the data now offers, brings those countries together and suddenly there’s a progress in the sense of what they understand what’s happening on the ocean. And now is the time, isn’t it, Denver? We’ve got to bring this to bear now. So that’s what excites me. We’re just on that cusp of real change, and we’ve got to drive it home.
Denver: Absolutely. You’re definitely at an inflection point, and I think we all realize the urgency is now. It really can’t wait any longer.
Tell us a little bit about your website and how listeners can become engaged or financially support this exciting work.
Tony: The website is very easy to work its way through. It’s the globalfishingwatch.org website. We’re also on Facebook at Global Fishing Watch, on Twitter @GlobalFishWatch because you can’t write the whole thing there, so it’s GlobalFishWatch. And then we launched on Instagram this week as well to try and get the message out to everybody. So please take a look at those.
And within the website, there’s a whole set of stories. There’s the way that we use the data for research and what the impacts our research is having. There’s stories about how our data’s been used in order to drive an enforcement, like our partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard. They’re using our data to enhance their patrol planning.
The first patrol we did with them saw an 800% increase in the success of their patrols, and we’ve got a great partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard. And there’s many other stories. And you see the team, that this globally-dispersed and diverse team that I rely on to deliver it. But the key thing here now is I need to get the story out. People need to understand what they hear and how it can be used.
The Audacious Project, as I’ve said, has really driven home the existence of the platform and the technical aspects of what we’re doing. So that map is going to be there, and it’s going to be enhanced. What I want to do now is accelerate the policy change, and that’s really where I’m looking to find a way to bring together as many donors as I can that recognize the need to get that policy change done.
And we will create a program on the side of the Audacious work, using that data to work with other NGOs and on-the-ground partners to provide that data for them and make sure that our system is used to drive forward 30 x 30, or enhance a High Seas Treaty, or just make sure that a nation is able to fish their resources without the threat of being pillaged by a foreign fleet.
Denver: Very exciting stuff, and we do know governments respond to people, so let’s get those people together and out there and advocating, and it will make a difference.
I want to thank you so much for being here today, Tony. It was really a great pleasure to have you on the program.
Tony: I appreciate the chance to tell the story. Thank you.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.