Google Earth images reveal unreported fish catches

All it took to reach a more realistic estimate of how much fish is being harvested from the sea was one scientist with an Internet connection and an inquisitive mind.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia used satellite imagery from Google Earth to discover that large fish traps in the Persian Gulf could be netting nearly six times more fish than official statistics report.

The study began with a PhD student messing around on the Internet.

”I was just playing around with Google Earth, doing what most people do when they first get on, which is try to find their house,” said Dalal Al-Abdulrazzak, a doctoral student at the university’s Fisheries Center and lead author of the study.

The Kuwait native noticed that three fish traps, known as weirs, could be seen near her parents’ home on the Persian Gulf.


“I had a light-bulb moment,” she said.

It was the start of a research project that used the Google program to count 1,900 fishing weirs -- huge, fence-like structures that use the changes in tides to trap sea life -- off the coast of six countries in the Persian Gulf. The study used the inventory to estimate that the region caught about 31,000 metric tons of fish in 2005, nearly six times the amount reported in official fisheries statistics.

The research is part of a larger project led by University of British Columbia marine biologist Daniel Pauly that aims to construct more reliable estimates of the global fish catch, which is often underestimated in official reports.

“In this case we have a really simple, easy-to-use method that countries can use to improve their catch statistics,” Al-Abdulrazzak said. “Basically anyone that’s got a little patience and access to the Internet can do this.”

Twitter: @tonybarboza