Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ending Hide & Seek at Sea: Global Fishing Watch in Science

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), located in the central Pacific between Hawaii and Australia, is the world’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spanning a swath of ocean roughly the size of California, its hosts a series of isolated seamounts and almost entirely uninhabited islands, all supporting rich, largely unspoiled ecosystems.

On January 1st of 2015, this unique park was officially closed to industrial fishing. But given that the protected area is so huge and isolated, how can we possibly monitor such a park and be sure that that fishing vessels are staying out?

In previous posts, we showed how Global Fishing Watch has done exactly that—verifying that most fishing vessels are following the new regulations in the Phoenix Islands. Today, in the prestigious journal Science, members of the Global Fishing Watch team outline in more detail how this monitoring was possible, and we make policy recommendations that will improve our ability to monitor the rest of the world’s oceans.

The key technology behind Global Fishing Watch is AIS – the “Automatic Identification System” that almost all large ocean-going vessels are required to carry. AIS transponders broadcast a vessel's location and identity every few seconds to every few minutes. The system was originally designed as a ship-to-ship collision-avoidance system, but now we can use it to track, via satellite, the movements of large fishing vessels across the globe. In the Science paper we outline the strengths and weaknesses of using AIS to track fishing effort.

To get a sense of what we can see using AIS, we created the map below, which shows the movements of all vessels in the world that carry AIS in 2015. To produce this map we processed four and a half billion data points from over 200,000 vessels.



Out of these roughly 200,000 vessels, more than 35,000 are commercial fishing vessels whose movements we can track and analyze. Global Fishing Watch has developed algorithms—and is working to refine these algorithms—that use the movements of fishing vessels to estimate when and where the vessels are placing their hooks and nets. In the paper we show that in the central Pacific, the fishing estimate of our algorithms correlates very well with official, direct observations of fishing.

We then used these algorithms to estimate the fishing activity in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area before and after the closure. Below is a video that shows how the fishing vessels cleared out of the marine reserve. The yellow and white heat map shows the intensity of fishing effort as measured by Global Fishing Watch. In 2014, the park was heavily fished; in 2015, there was almost no fishing.




Today, also using PIPA as a case study, our partners at Oceana published their own report on the role of Global Fishing Watch in fisheries management and monitoring. 

As we make clear in the paper, AIS is not perfect. It is used primarily by large vessels, and is thus better for monitoring fishing on the high seas than in small artisanal fisheries. Also, mixed regulations means that in some regions of the world almost all fishing vessels carry AIS, while in others only a few vessels do. Nonetheless, this technology is an enormous leap forward, and in recent years, more countries are requiring more vessels to carry AIS. As the paper describes, "hide and seek" on the world's oceans may be coming to an end.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

[Updated] Fishing Fleet at MH370 Search Site May Have Moved North

Vessels in the Fu Yuan Yu fleet previously seen near the MH370 search site suddenly disappeared from our monitoring system last week as the entire fleet and associated fishing gear stopped broadcasting AIS. One of the vessels has now reappeared, the Fu Yuan Yu 076 is giving a current location in the Bay of Bengal near India. However looking at the vessel's track over the past three months there is good reason to be skeptical. While the vessel showed a likely fishing track they appeared in a very unlikely location, the mountains of Tibet.

What we see is in fact a latitude reversal where a vessel's position in the Southern Hemisphere is flipped over the Equator to appear in the Northern Hemisphere. This is one of a number of patterns of false AIS locations we have documented. We're not sure if these simply result from errors in transmission or if the vessel operator intends to make his vessel difficult to track. Fortunately we have developed some tools to pick these false locations out of our data and correct them. The reappearance today of what is likely a beacon attached to the vessel's fishing gear (identifying as Fu Yuan Yu 076 08) with a mirror track in the Southern Hemisphere is very strong evidence that this is also the true location of the parent fishing vessel.

The vessel's latest positions show them moving on an irregular course at slow speed so it's possible that they have resumed fishing at this new location. Though we can't see any of the other vessels in the Fu Yuan Yu fleet there is a good chance they are nearby. We'll see if any of them reappear in the next few days.

Here are seen two AIS tracks over the past 3 months. The fishing vessel Fu Yuan Yu 076 broadcasting an impossible location on land in the Northern Hemisphere and the associated Fu Yuan Yu 076 08 (likely fishing gear) mirroring the track but in the Southern Hemisphere. The track of the Fu Yuan Yu 076 08 confirms our suspicion that the true location of the parent vessel can be found by reversing the latitude of their broadcast positions. While none of the other vessels in the fleet can be located it may be that the group has moved north to this new location.  





Monday, January 25, 2016

Update on Fishing Fleet at MH370 Search Site

I would like to provide an update on our post from earlier this month on the Fu Yuan Yu Fleet appearing near the search site for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. We were puzzled to see a large number of fishing vessels at this remote location. Since our post we have received information indicating that these vessels are licensed Chinese fishing vessels targeting small pelagic species.

The Fu Yuan Yu fleet now appears just south of the area being surveyed by MH370 search vessels Fugro Equator and Fugro Discovery. The Liao Chang Yu Yun 88 can be seen headed north after spending two weeks with the fleet. This Chinese flagged vessel is likely a fish carrier.

If as reported the Fu Yuan Yu vessels 070, 071, 072, 073, 075, 076 are targeting small pelagic species (not tuna) then they would not need to be licensed by an RFMO (Regional Fishery Management Organization) in the Indian Ocean. However we are still curious about the fishing methods of this fleet, described as lightning purse seiners. The lightning presumably refers to use of light attraction in their fishing operation. 

Each parent vessel appears to be associated with a string of 5 or 6 AIS beacons attached to some type of gear. The vessel and gear can be drifting and strung out in a 30 mile string as seen in the recent screenshots below. Or at other times each parent vessel and set of associated gear is in the same location. This pattern made us think of setting and retrieving a longline but these vessels have now been reported as purse seiners so the fishing operation is puzzling. 

Below you will see track for one of the fishing vessels, Fu Yuan Yu 070, as well as what we assume is a piece of associated fishing gear (070 04). The two tracks can be seen to overlay closely. We are looking for further information to clarify the fishing operation taking place.

The track of the Fu Yuan Yu 070 (black dashed line) over three days. Other vessels of the Fu Yuan Yu Fleet also appear to the south each with string of what is assumed to be associated fishing gear extending southeast about 30 km. All vessels have been described as lighting purse seiners.

Here is shown the three day track of one of presumed pieces of fishing gear associated with the Fu Yuan Yu 070. The track has fewer broadcast AIS positions but it can be seen to closely follow that of the parent vessel. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Will Taylor Energy Response Offer Any New Answers?


Undated photo of Taylor Energy Platform #23051 before it was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Image Credit – Taylor Energy
Today, Jan. 20, Taylor Energy will host a public forum in Baton Rouge, La., to explain what efforts they have taken to respond to the ongoing oil spill in Mississippi Canyon Block 20 (MC-20) – the former site of Taylor Energy Platform #23051. Over eleven years ago Hurricane Ivan triggered a subsea landslide which destroyed the platform and buried 28 wells under a hundred or more feet of mud and sediment. The spill first came to public attention during the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, when GMC charter member SkyTruth observed the leak on satellite imagery and began investigating with GMC assets in the air and on the surface.


Above: Landsat 8 image from June 2014; one many satellite observations SkyTruth has catalogued over the past eleven years. 

Oil still leaks from the site to this day, eleven miles off the coast of Louisiana, while the now-idled company’s efforts to stop the leak have remained a carefully guarded secret. In early 2015, an AP investigation pressed the U.S. Coast Guard to increase their estimated spill rate to an amount 20x higher than Taylor had ever acknowledged. In Sept. 2015, GMC partners, including the Waterkeeper Alliance, settled a law suit over the company’s lack of transparency about efforts to fix the leak. This forum was a condition of that settlement.

The Gulf Monitoring Consortium has the following questions for Taylor Energy, which, in one presentation posted in advance to the forum’s website called the events surrounding Hurricane Ivan, an “Act of God“.

1) What is the plan to stop this leak? 
2) If the plan is to just let it go for the next 100 years, what research has been done to determine that the environmental harm would be minimal and acceptable? Why wasn’t the public involved in that decision making?
3) What lessons were learned and are they being applied to new permitting and drilling in the Gulf?
  • What do we know about slope stability and the risk of slope failure throughout the Gulf, especially in deepwater; and is that risk being incorporated into engineering and permitting? 

  • What is the plan if a similar fate befalls a deepwater platform with 20 high-pressure producing oil wells? 

  • What systems are in place to successfully shut in those wells in the event of a slope failure? 
4) What is the estimated cost to the public of the lost oil and gas revenue if the decision is made to let the reservoir bleed out? 
5) What were the various interventions that were deployed on the seafloor to try to capture the leaking oil and gas? How much oil and gas did they capture, and during what time periods? What was done with the captured oil and gas?
To attend, the public is asked to register.
LOCATION:Louisiana State University
Pennington Biomedical Research Center
Building “G”
6400 Perkins Rd
Baton Rouge, LA 70808 
DATE & TIME:9:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
January 20, 2016

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Unusual Vessel Behavior in the MH370 Search Area

Over the past month we’ve been watching an unusual Chinese fleet in a remote area of the Southern Indian Ocean. These vessels identify themselves as fishing but were not found in any public fishing registry and appear almost 500 miles distant from the nearest known fishing vessels.


This self-identified fishing fleet is currently operating in very close proximity to vessels searching for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370). This fleet, with vessels broadcasting the name Fu Yuan Yu, has been in the general search area over the past month but today appears within several miles of the MH370 search vessel Havila Harmony.


We’ve shared vessel tracks of the Fu Yuan Yu fleet with members of several regional fisheries management organizations but so far no one has been able to confirm the activity of the fleet though all agree that the location is unusual for fishing vessels. We’d be very interested to hear from anyone who can confirm the identity of these vessels (Fu Yuan Yu 70, 71, 72, 73, 75, 76) and explain their activity in this unusual location.


Fu Yuan Yu Indian Ocean map background labeled 1-5.jpg
The three MH370 search vessels (small circles) are shown near to the Chinese Fu Yuan Yu Fleet. Vessels of the Fu Yuan Yu fleet identify themselves as fishing but this remote location is not a known fishing area. The nearest confirmed fishing vessels (light blue) are about 500 miles to the the north and to the west.


Havila Harmony 1-5 scale labeled.jpg
The MH370 search vessel Havila Harmony, flagged to Malaysia, currently appears surrounded by a Chinese fleet whose activity in the area is unclear. Fu Yuan Yu vessels identify themselves as fishing though this could not be confirmed by registry or port records. Each vessel appear to be trailed by a string of five or six points (red triangles), probably some sort of gear associated with the parent vessel.

Fu Yuan Yu vessels appear to make up a major global fishing fleet with over 120 vessels broadcasting with that name. Three Fu Yuan Yu vessels (numbers 013, 997,998) are currently authorized by the IOTC (Indian Ocean Tuna Commission) to target tuna in the Indian Ocean. Since the Fu Yuan Yu vessels we are observing here are not registered with the IOTC they could not target tuna but it's not clear that there is another likely target species. Normally vessel registry records, like those issued by the IOTC and other regional fisheries management organizations, would allow us to confirm a fishing vessel’s identity and get details on the vessel’s operation, such as the fishing gear they employ. However no such information has been found for the Fu Yuan Yu vessels appearing in the MH370 search area.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

From the Bird's Foot to the Dogsleg: 2015 in Review

Our most recent trip around the sun was filled with growth and major (positive!) impact for the environment, so we're inviting you to share in our success. Of course, SkyTruth is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit, so your tax-deductible donation before midnight tomorrow will reduce your 2015 tax bill and help us keep a sharp eye on the world in 2016.


Offshore Energy: For eleven years oil has leaked into the Gulf of Mexico from a point eleven miles off the Mississippi River Delta (aka the Bird's Foot Delta). Our dogged reporting of this slow-motion oil spill finally caught the attention of the Associated Press. Their investigation ultimately pushed the U.S. Coast Guard to acknowledge a spill rate 20x higher than Taylor Energy had ever admitted. Then in September, Taylor Energy settled a lawsuit brought by the Waterkeeper Alliance and several of our other Gulf Coast partners over lack of transparency about what the company had done to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.


In recognition of the five-year anniversary of the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, we mapped the nearly 10,000 reported oil and chemical spills that have occurred in the Gulf since the oil stopped gushing from the Macondo well in 2010. Once it became apparent that a Coast Guard database we relied on for daily pollution reports would be offline for the indefinite future, our programming team engineered a way to convert their weekly data dumps back into the SkyTruth Alerts you know and love. 

Fracking: We've continued our work to map the footprint of drilling and fracking in the mid-Atlantic using aerial imagery and geospatial data. On one very seasonally-themed map we mapped the spooky spread of drilling in Ohio's Utica Shale, while below we animated a visualization of the drilling boom in western Pennsylvania using your FrackFinder results.


Also of note, the oil and gas industry finally gave in this year on a transparency issue we've pursued since 2012. In May, FracFocus.org unlocked access to tens of thousands of fracking chemical records regarding drilling operations across the US. Industry proudly proclaims that they did this voluntarily, but judge for yourself if you think they would have unlocked this data without our persistence over the past three years

Coal and Metal Mining: This summer in Colorado contractors for the EPA accidentally triggered a spill of polluted water from an inactive gold mine, turning the Animas River orange for miles. To provide some context on the problem of abandoned mine lands in the US, we compiled a couple of interactive maps to help visualize at least some of the abandoned coal mines and inactive metal mines in the US.


Later this year a dam at an iron mine in Brazil collapsed, destroying an entire town, killing 17 people, and displacing hundreds more. We used satellite imagery to investigate the impacts of the disaster, and published imagery showing the developments leading up to the catastrophe. Unfortunately, as we wrote this month, this kind of spill from mine waste impoundments is all too common around the world.

Fishing/Marine Conservation: While our programming team is hard at work developing the Global Fishing Watch platform to help tackle the ecological crisis of overfishing, we've also come across some major cases of maritime malfeasance.

In January we stayed up late to help the government of Palau catch the Shin Jyi Chyuu 33, a Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel caught in their waters, and according to official reports had shark fins and illegally caught tuna in her holds. A few months later, after monitoring the movements of a Thai-flagged cargo vessel suspected of "transshipping" with vessels crewed by slave labor, we helped the Associated Press acquire this satellite image. The image (above) shows the Silver Sea 2 tied up with two unidentified fishing vessels in the "Dogsleg" region of Papua New Guinea's territorial waters

This summer a film crew for National Geographic came to the office to learn more about what we are doing for marine conservation and how fishing transparency can encourage more sustainable fisheries management:



Over the course of 2015, the New York Times launched a now six-part series on the "Outlaw Ocean", kicking it off with a globe-trotting investigation of the Dona Liberta. If you recall,the Dona Liberta (now known as the Sea Pearl) is a scofflaw cargo ship first spotted by SkyTruth back in 2012 off the coast of Angola at the end of an oily-slick approx. 90 miles long.  
Technology Won't Save the Planet. You Will.

In 2015 we welcomed three new full-time members to our team, as well as two part-time programmers. Our staff traveled from Chile to Lisbon to talk about Global Fishing Watch, shared our big ideas for conservation at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and convened with mapping and remote sensing experts at Google's GeoForGood and CartoDB's State of the Map conference in NYC. Your tax-deductible contribution will help us continue to keep an eagle-eye on the planet and continue to share our vision for a better world. 


As John said last month at the WWF Fuller Symposium at National Geographic, "The answer to the question, 'Will technology save the planet?' is clearly 'no' -- people will save the planet, but technology will give them the inspiration and the tools..."

Now it's your turn. Subscribe to Alerts, sign up to be a volunteer for FrackFinder WV coming in early 2016, or donate. Thank you!


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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Tailings Dam Failures at Metal Mines Around the World

Catastrophic mine spills have been in the news frequently enough that we are devoting a few articles to cover some of the problems plaguing existing mines and posing serious concerns for new and proposed mines like Pebble in Alaska, Red Chris in British Columbia, and NorthMet in Minnesota. In this post we're only covering impoundment failures from metal mines and ore processing facilities (we'll get to coal slurry and coal ash later, and we've already written about abandoned and inactive mines).

The litany of mine impoundment disasters around the world is a grim one. This year saw the Fundão tailings dam failure that killed at least 13 downstream of the Samarco iron mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil. 


Above: The village of Bento Rodrigues after the Fundao dam burst at the Samarco Mine. Image Credit: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

In August 2014 it was a 24,400,000 cubic meter spill from the Mt. Polley gold mine in British Columbia, Canada into the headwaters of the Fraser River (below) only a few weeks before a run of salmon would make their way upstream. However, on Dec.17, 2015, the provincial government announced there would be no criminal charges or fines assessed against Imperial Metals for the disaster. Al Hoffman, British Columbia's chief inspector of mines stated, "Although there were poor practices, there were no non-compliances we could find."


Above: Mine waste and debris enter Quesnel Lake five miles downstream of the failed impoundment at Imperial Metal's Mt. Polley gold/copper mine. Image Credit: Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press 

If a mine can discharge 10 million cubic meters of polluted water and toxic mine waste into the environment, turning a quiet stream into a moonscape, and yet not have broken any rules, one must wonder if the rules and/or regulators are up to the task.  

Looking further back to 2010, a tailings dam failed at an alumina plant in Hungary, killing 10, injuring 150, and turning the "blue" Danube River a sickly, toxic red. A slight silver-lining, however, is that the downstream town of Devecser has risen from the sludge to become a model of green living and sustainable energy.


An aerial photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010 shows the ruptured wall of a red sludge reservoir of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Kolontar, 160 km (100 mi) southwest of Budapest, Hungary. Note the excavators at bottom to give a sense of scale. Image Credit: AP Photos/MTI, Gyoergy Varga


Unfortunately, this list only recounts some of the more notorious disasters that reached the international press. For a more complete record of significant mine tailings dam failures, the World Information Service on Energy has complied a list of over 80 major non-coal spills since the 1960's.   

Yet every time a new mine is proposed, even when the dam would be taller than the Washington Monument, we are reassured that this time we have the technology right, this time the dam won't fail, and this time the environment will be left just as it was before we mined it. There are techniques, such "dry-stacking", which are safer than conventional wet-tailings impoundments, but they are also more expensive. 

So unless the public and regulators demand that mines employ better practices, it seems we will have to keep reliving this story, year after year.


Stay tuned for the next part of this series, impoundment failures from coal mines in Appalachia.