That innocent-looking picture of what looks like two interlocking hearts above is actually something more sinister: a weir, also known as a fish trap. The weir creates an obstruction, making it hard for the fish to swim out once the tide recedes, and fishing crews can easily snag their catch. Like other fishing practices worldwide, the use of fish weirs is governed by conservation policies, one of which revolves around accurately reporting the number of weirs and the number of fish caught in them every year.
Without this critical information, it’s difficult if not impossible to manage fisheries sustainably and appropriately. And that’s why a new study has some conservationists extremely worried, because it suggests that the incidence of weir fishing may be six times higher than previously reported. That’s a difference that can’t be accounted for by simple margins of error or a few districts that aren’t reporting quite accurately. Weir fishing is often not considered a critical issue because of its small scale, but it adds up over time, especially when the disparity in numbers is this acute, and it may disrupt juvenile fish, creating a ripple effect for fisheries’ health.
How did these findings come about? Well, the story is actually rather fascinating. Researcher Dalal Al-Abdulrazzak is from Kuwait, where this practice is common, and she’s very used to the sight of weirs in coastal waters. In fact, it’s such a common sight for her that she was confused by the low numbers reported to the United Nations every year, because the reported data didn’t mesh at all with her experience.
So she undertook an experiment, and she did it using a simple and freely available tool: Google Earth. She used the software to look for weirs, and almost immediately, she began noticing that despite the low numbers many nations were reporting, the satellites told a different tale. She noted that her data is by no means perfect, but that it was certainly more accurate than those used currently by the UN. Furthermore, they illustrated that there’s a low cost, accessible way to monitor fisheries in areas beyond the Middle East, which was where she focused her study.
This study is major news, and it joins a list of environmental accomplishments made courtesy of Google Earth. The software has been used to map forest fires, deforestation, environmental changes at sites like Lake Chad, light pollution, and so much more. It’s a powerful tool for citizen scientists and researchers alike to get connected with the environment and track the changes around them, and to engage on a very personal level with issues they’re interested in.
This also has tremendous implications on a policy and government level. What if Google Earth could be used to monitor certain conditions, instead of relying on government satellites or costly private surveys? While the idea of being surveyed from above is something many people find unsettling, as this case illustrates, sometimes it has important environmental benefits, generating a reminder that sometimes there’s a complex tension between what’s right for the environment and what’s right for ordinary citizens.
Photo: Carrie Kellenberger.