Google Earth Images Help Researchers Identify Severe Persian Gulf Overfishing; Iran And Bahrain Violate UN Fishing Law

By Ajit Jha on November 27, 2013 8:44 AM EST

Persian Gulf Fishing Weir
A Google Earth image of a fishing weir along the Persian Gulf coast. (Photo: University of British Columbia)

Google Earth has proven a huge technological arsenal with the potential to enforce compliance against some of the rogue nations violating international laws. Iran, it appears has more to hide than just weapons-grade uranium. Thanks to Google Earth scientists now know that Iran hauls in more than 12,000 tons of fish a year — much more than what they report to the United Nations. Bahrain, however, tops the list of illegal catch in terms of percentage reported and actually caught. Like many regions of the world, the Persian Gulf suffers from overfishing, and a new study shows how technological innovation could save the earth from humans.

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A recent study, the first of its kind, was published by scientists at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who used Google Earth images to determine the amount of fish actually caught in the Persian Gulf region in comparison to what the area's countries misleadingly report. Dalal Al-Abdulrazzak and Daniel Pauly estimated 31,433 tons of fish were caught in 2005 in the Persian Gulf region, six times what the nations actually reported. "Our results document the unreliability of catch data from the Persian Gulf, a small part of a global misreporting problem," according to the authors, whose study was published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science.

"Underreporting fish catches can jeopardize a country's food security, economy, not to mention impact entire marine ecosystems," stated Al-Abdulrazzak in an email to Quartz. "This is particularly important in the case of the Persian Gulf, where fisheries are the second most important natural resource after oil."

Google Earth satellite images can not only be used to monitor environment destruction like illegal logging, but also against illegal fishing and underreporting of fish catches. The two researchers made use of Google Earth images captured between 2005 and 2010. They found the real culprit in overfishing wasn't actually fishing boats, but fishing weirsWeirs, usually over 300 meters in length, can be easily detected by the satellites. In 2005, Al-Abdulrazzak and Pauly detected 1,656 weirs, but corrected their estimates to 1,900 weirs, after running an algorithm to correct for poor visibility.

The calculation of the fish catch was based on the size of each weir's trap using Google's map ruler, historical records on fish catch, the length of the fishing season, and the location-specific composition of fish species. Bahrain, which accounts for half the fishing weirs in the Gulf, gets 54% of the Persian Gulf's estimated catch, while Iran accounts for 37% of weirs and 39% of the region's fish catch. Bahrain's actual catch was estimated to be 142% higher than what they actually reported to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, reports the study.

The only nation more or less honest, according to researchers was Kuwait. Their estimated catch of less than 300 tons was what they reported. Surprisingly, a January 2013 report presented to the Congress did not identify any Gulf nation among the 10 nations whose vessels are known to engage in unregulated and unreported fishing.

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