Taking the “Secret” out of Rendezvous at Sea

In January, SkyTruth reported on our work with DigitalGlobe to identify and photograph refrigerated cargo vessels (reefers) in the Western Indian Ocean. The goal was to capture high-resolution images of vessels that our analyst had painstakingly targeted for suspicious behavior by monitoring and analyzing their movements based on signals from their Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts. We targeted reefers because they are key to transshipment—they receive catch transferred from multiple fishing vessels and carry it to port. The practice, called transshipment, saves fishing vessels time and fuel, but it is illegal in many cases because it can enable illegally caught fish to be mixed with legal catch.

The images DigitalGlobe acquired in November revealed multiple instances of reefers in rendezvous with other vessels, including fishing vessels. Now, in collaboration with Global Fishing Watch, SkyTruth data scientists have made the job of targeting reefers much easier. Together, the team has developed an artificial intelligence system capable of identifying and tracking transshipments around the world by following reefers and classifying their movements. An analysis of 21 billion AIS signals from ships at sea has created the first-ever global map of transshipment.

Today, SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch are publishing those results in a new report: The Global View of Transshipment: Preliminary Findings. According to our analysis, from 2012 through 2016, there were more than 86,490 potential transshipments in which reefers exhibited the slow movements indicative of transshipment. Of those, 5,065 were likely transshipments because they included a rendezvous with an AIS-broadcasting fishing vessel — meaning they traveled at a specified slow speed in close proximity to one another for a certain length of time that indicated a likely transshipment.

This image of the reefer Hai Feng 648 with an unidentified fishing vessel off the coast of Argentina is just one of the images acquired on Nov 30, 2016 in collaboration with DigitalGlobe. (DigitalGlobe © 2017)

Like most activity that occurs on the ocean, transshipment has been hidden from the world. This report shines a new light over the horizon, revealing the extent and magnitude of transshipment. Based on the data generated by SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch during this project, our partners at Oceana are publishing a complementary report today that highlights the global scale of transshipment and its complicity in illegal fishing and human rights abuses. The report identifies hotspots of transshipment and the ports that reefers visit, exposing associations between transshipment and illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activity.

The refrigerated cargo vessel (reefer) Leelawadee seen on November 30, 2016 with two unidentified likely fishing vessels tied alongside was featured in our post on January 16. (DigitalGlobe © 2017)

Oceana’s report calls for the banning of transshipment at sea, expanded mandates for unique identifiers and vessel tracking for fishing vessels. Currently AIS is not required on all vessels, and fishing vessels engaged in illegal activity are known to turn off their AIS when they don’t want to be seen. Having access to high-resolution satellite imagery is a game-changer when it comes to illuminating these rendezvous, especially when only one of the vessels is broadcasting AIS. That’s why we are thrilled to be working with the folks at DigitalGlobe, who are donating time and imagery from their powerful WorldView satellites to demonstrate that we can systematically shine a spotlight on these transshipment events at sea. In partnering with SkyTruth, DigitalGlobe shows how corporations and nonprofits can join together to solve some of the world’s thorniest problems.

 

Mystery Moves: What is the Chinese Squid Fleet Doing in the Pacific?

Over the past couple of months, SkyTruth analyst Bjorn Bergman has been watching some interesting activity by the Chinese fishing fleet in the Pacific. A large Chinese flagged squid-fishing fleet had been fishing at the boundary of Peru’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) throughout the summer and fall of 2016. Then, near the middle of December, many of them suddenly began migrating some 3,000 miles to the northwest.

At their new location, around 118 degrees West longitude and just north of the equator, they met up with another group of Chinese-flagged vessels. These vessels had just moved to this remote part of the Pacific about a week or two earlier. Some arrived from China and Indonesia, and some came directly from fishing just outside the Japanese EEZ.

This screen shot from the Global Fishing Watch map shows the movement of 55 Chinese flagged vessels from early November 2016 through February 5, 2017. You can see vessels moving to a single location around 118 degrees West longitude from the western Pacific (red tracks), and from the squid fishing grounds just outside the Peru EEZ (blue tracks). Some vessels off the Peru EEZ also moved south to Argentina. You will find a link to see these tracks on the live map at the bottom of this post.

When fishing for squid, fishers use powerful lights to attract the animals to the surface for an easy catch. This nighttime VIIRS imagery from the Suomi-NPP satellite, taken on January 29, 2017, shows the lights of Chinese squid fishing vessels off of Peru, and at the new location in the middle of the Pacific.

The same pattern is seen using satellite signals from fishing vessels.

This Global Fishing Watch heat map shows the AIS signals from fishing vessels from January 9 to February 2, 2017. With one fishing track defined in blue, we can see the path of the Chinese squid fleet moving from just outside the Peru EEZ to a location on the high seas.

The new location of these vessels is not known for squid. It is also an unlikely habitat as squid usually live near continental shelves and canyons where there are steep changes in water depth. It’s unclear what the vessels are fishing for now, but the sudden move from the eastern Pacific may be a reflection of a dwindling catch.

Usually Chinese flagged squid fishers operating around South America concentrate off of Peru in the Pacific and Argentina in the Atlantic Ocean. For the past few years, some squid-fishing fleets have seen their catch decline in both regions.  Undercurrent News reports that some Taiwanese boat captains abandoned squid altogether because of low catch. They are now targeting Pacific saury (mackerel pike), which is found in the north Pacific.

Perhaps the Chinese fleet around South America has also given up on catching squid. We noted that when many of the Chinese vessels off Peru began moving to the northwest, some of them turned south, headed for Argentina, but according to Undercurrent, Chinese captains who moved to Argentina said they wish they had stayed in Peru because the catch was so bad.

The fleet that stayed in Peru may not have fared much better. By February 7, only three Chinese squid-fishing vessels remained in that location. Why so many have moved some 3,000 km to the northwest, and what they’re fishing for now remains a mystery to us. Whatever it is, it’s also drawn a crowd of Chinese vessels from the western Pacific. We checked in with the Southern Pacific Regional Management Organization that has jurisdiction over the area, and even they are not sure what the sudden change in location by this fleet means. 

We would be very interested to hear from anyone who can help explain it.

Click here to see these vessels on the Global Fishing Watch Map where you can manipulate the time frame, zoom in, add vessels. Note: you will need to be registered to access the map (it’s free). If you are already a registered user, and the map link isn’t working, please log in then copy the link into your browser. http://globalfishingwatch.org/map/workspace/udw-627b8ae0-02f3-4fd1-b080-119462b69c8c