Over the last century, ocean biodiversity has been obliterated by overfishing and industrialization, resulting in a looming mass extinction event in the seas. Though several enormous marine protected areas (MPAs) have been established, poachers are still slipping through the cracks, undermining crucial attempts to stop the ecological freefall occurring in marine environments.
The ocean remains the least observed part of our planet. This deficiency was made obvious by two recent developments in ocean governance: the emerging global movement to create massive marine protected areas (MPAs) (1) and a new commitment by the United Nations (UN) to develop a legally binding treaty to better manage high-seas biodiversity (2). Both policy goals cause us to confront whether it is meaningful to legislate change in ocean areas that we have little capacity to observe transparently. Correspondingly, there has been a surge in interest in the potential of publicly accessible data from automatic ship identification systems (AIS) to fill gaps in ocean observation. We demonstrate how AIS data can be used to empower and propel forward a new era of spatially ambitious marine governance and research. The value of AIS, however, is inextricably linked to the strength of policies by which it is backed.