Video Clips of John at CBUC

Check out these standup interviews John had with Globo News when he presented at the Brazilian Congress on Protected Areas (CBUC) in August.

How can we illustrate the problem of overfishing from space?

 

How the Silver Sea 2 fishing vessel was caught with slaves on board

The SkyTruther path: an intern’s excursion to understanding offshore oil (part I)

Practice does not guarantee perfection but it is a diligent educator. During my first week of orientation at SkyTruth, the other interns and I filtered through Sentinel 1 radar satellite imagery on the European Space Agency’s (ESA) online portal, compressed large .tiff image files using the command-line, and constructed final, publishable visuals in QGIS – a free, open source geographic information system (GIS), enabling users to create, view, edit, and analyze geospatial data. Essentially, we learned the fundamentals of finding, processing, and analyzing imagery.

Subsequent to grasping the basics, I worked on catching my first ocean offender by clicking through images, zooming in and out of rasters, and adjusting min and max values. Eventually, I spotted several shadowy slithers. Possible identification: oil leak.

Oil slicks off the coast of China.

The first image I discovered at SkyTruth.

Before hopscotching to conclusions, I checked in with mentor, Dr. Ry Covington (Doctorate of Philosophy; he’s not the medical type but he knows a thing about bodies – bodies of water, that is). Without hesitation, Ry confirmed my sighting as plausible. Three likely slicks from three unidentified sources. Mission success, phase two initiated: annotate.

When annotating an image, there are certain guidelines to follow. Most of the metadata – basic information needed to read a visual such as image credit/source, author, scale-bar, and date – is there. However, I did not include any boxed nouns or pointy things denoting the white zit-like points, or running, dark mascara streaks. Reflecting, I should have marked up this version more; I should have labeled the several pimples as unidentified sources, and measured the length of the eyelash-lacquer lines, ticketing them as slicks. Instead, I let the caption clamor over the image.

My first caption went something like this: “This image displays three leaks from several unidentified sources, off the coast of Guangzhou Province, China (near Hong Kong).”

That was all I got. New to the practice in general and unfamiliar with that latitude, I didn’t have much to say. So to boost productivity, I harvested a separate, bluer pair of eyes. My advisor with three first names, Christian James Thomas, looked over my caption. He was particularly picky with diction. One word, to be precise: leaks. Backspacing five times, Christian typed ‘slick’. Slick? Like ‘smooth’ or ‘glossy’? Or maybe like Eric Slick, the drummer of my favorite band, Dr. Dog? I wish, but certainly not.

‘Slick’ has various definitions, but to the SkyTruth team, slick typically describes flat water. Smooth surfaces on satellite radar imagery could signify oil, algae, lack of wind, or the like. What we are interested in is the accidental or purposeful release of oil or oily waste that may be a result of drilling, disposal, or disaster. Leak or spill is too specific, too assuming. I learned why this was after confusing slicks with a number of other ocean junk. When examining satellite evidence, slicks are often muddled by air and ocean current due to lag time between spill and image capture – this phenomenon also contributes to why some slicks exist without suspect in sight. Other times, slicks can be confused with false positives from weather events, natural disasters, coastal features, natural seeps, and other anomalies.

Bilge dumps off the coast of China.

This figure displays two likely slicks from intersecting bilge dumps off the coast of China. Due to their kinky shapes, these slicks are likely several days old; this image also shows the influence of time and natural forces on slick appearance.

Although I discovered how to be more transparent with terminology and make better imagery-based speculations, I did not know enough about slicks themselves. Oil naturally exists in the earth, and we harvest it to power our consumptive, energetic lifestyles. Sometimes, the oil itself leaks. In other other cases, wastewater produced during offshore drilling processes is released by us. This produced water is known as brine. Brine contains inorganic substances, toxic matter, and variably sized oil particles that must be properly disposed of or treated before release; it can be treated on platform and discharged into open water, transported to an offsite facility treatment or disposal facility, or put into beneficial reuse – for irrigation, recycled flowback fluid for other drilling operations, or as a substance for ice control (“Produced Water 101”, 2017).

Unlike shoplifting or arson, oil slicks are not always a result of unlawfulness. Some slicks are consequences of legal dumping – legality depending on individual cases in regard to international and country approvals. Accidental spills and leaks also occur and must be cleaned up. However, not all slicks are legally permitted or accidental and concern arises when oil slicks appear without record. Bilge dumping is one indicator of purposeful, often illegal, offshore pollution. To relieve ship weight and space, ships release oily waste from their engine and fuel systems, flushing residual material out of their cargo holds. This is highly illegal, as noted by a case in 2016, when Caribbean Princess, a luxury cruise ship under Princess Cruises, was fined $40 million for illegally discharging thousands of gallons of bilge. Senior intern, Daniel Nicholls, spotted a similar incident with another Princess Cruises ship in late January, indicating an ongoing dilemma.

A bilge dump from the Sapphire Princess.

Nicholls’s annotated Sentinel 1 radar satellite image of possible bilge dumping by Caribbean Princess-owned cruise ship, Sapphire Princess, as it heads towards Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Check out the full post here.

Now, I understand slicks not just as mascara tears or eyeliner blunders across a wrinkled ocean display; but as oily remnants with purpose and disposition. This comprehension allows me to more appropriately identify and interpret oil slicks in marine environments. As valuable as this was process and realization was, I registered that the beluga colored specks, aka the potential sources of the slicks, were still unidentified. Probably boats….

Who’s to blame? The murky dilemma of oil spill accountability

As global energy consumption continues to grow, Trinidad and Tobago — a small, Caribbean nation rich in oil and gas resources — has become one of the top exporters of liquified natural gas (LNG) in the world.  But the benefits to the economy of Trinidad and Tobago have come with a cost: chronic leaks and spills from aging oil and gas infrastructure on and offshore.

In early July, an abandoned oil well off of the west coast of Trinidad ruptured, sending dangerous hydrocarbons spewing into the ocean.  Trinidad and Tobago’s state-owned oil company Petrotrin stepped in to help address the rupture, but six days after the orphaned well erupted, the Ministry of Energy was still trying to determine which private company was responsible.

Insufficient documentation and incomplete record-keeping makes response efforts more difficult.  Gary Aboud, Corporate Secretary of Trinidad and Tobago’s Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), summed up the the deeper issue in Trinidad concisely: Who is the responsible party? Nothing has been done all week…There are literally hundreds of decades-old, capped, orphaned or abandoned wells which may not have been properly decommissioned, and are corroding.”

Map of Trinidad and Tobago's energy resources.

Energy map of Trinidad and Tobago. Source: The National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago.

Better documentation about ownership and better geospatial data showing oil and gas fields, pipelines, and abandoned wells would be a step in the right direction.  Some of this information is available but, as the map above shows, much of it is in a form that is very difficult to use. This energy map is pretty ‘busy’ — the various oil fields, gas fields, and pipelines depicted together make it difficult to use, especially in a crisis scenario like responding to an oil spill.

Officials need a comprehensive geospatial data set — filled with attributes like ownership or responsible party — that they can easily examine, especially during crises like this one.  One of my tasks as an intern at SkyTruth has been to pick apart the existing information (including the map above) and provide it as a robust geospatial data set that’s easy for the public to use.

A map of Trinidad and Tobago's gas fields and gas pipelines.

Gas fields and gas pipelines in Trinidad and Tobago, digitized from the map above.

I’ve digitized all of the oil and gas fields, pipelines, and existing platforms around Trinidad and Tobago, and I’m constantly adding in new fields and data that I’m collecting about these features.

Map of Trinidad and Tobago's oil fields and oil pipelines.

Oil fields and oil pipelines in Trinidad and Tobago, digitized from the map above.

I’m using these new data sets — combined with Sentinel 1 radar satellite imagery — to help monitor oil leaks and spills around Trinidad and Tobago like the one described above.  Having better geospatial data will improve not only how companies handle clean-ups, but will also provide local fisherfolk with more insight into leaks and spills from oil infrastructure as they happen.

Global Fishing Watch Provides Training to Peru’s Vessel Surveillance Group

[Originally posted on the Global Fishing Watch blog, Aug. 15, 2018.]

We were very pleased to complete a three day training session this month in Lima with the Peruvian Ministry of Production’s vessel surveillance division. It was an opportunity for us to share the latest developments on the Global Fishing Watch mapping platform and to get expert feedback from professionals in Peru’s fisheries sector.

Since Peru’s public commitment in 2017 to show fishing activity from their Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) tracking data on our map we have engaged with local researchers and regulators to review and improve our data and analysis in the region. This began with a workshop with Peru’s Instituto del Mar de Peru (IMARPE) last December and now continues with Peruvian regulators directly responsible for daily monitoring of one of the world’s largest fisheries (Peruvian anchoveta).

In our most recent training session we highlighted the benefits of being able to view and compare multiple data sources on the Global Fishing Watch map including the new night lights and encounters layers launched in June this year. Many large fishing vessels on the Peruvian coast are covered both by AIS and the Peruvian VMS system. In training, we compared the tracking data from both systems for the same vessel showing how one system may cover a gap in the other.

The new night lights layer also has the potential to be very useful to regulators in combination with tracking data. A fleet of hundreds of Chinese vessels fishing for squid is expected to soon return to the Peruvian EEZ boundary. Individual fishing locations can be seen precisely due to the powerful lights they use to attract squid to the surface. However, to identify the fishing vessels, the night light information has to be combined with tracking and identity information from AIS. In training we identified a number of vessels in the Chinese squid fleet and followed their AIS tracks into port in Peru or to rendezvous with reefers (refrigerated cargo ships) where their catch is likely being transshipped.

As we work to develop new tools and data sources for the Global Fishing Watch map it’s valuable to get the insights of fisheries regulators on how they would like to be able to apply our map. So it was great to be able to wrap up the training with a discussion on features that it would be useful to enable in the future. These included being able to select an area on the map with the mouse and display a list of vessels inside and downloading reports of past activity for individual vessels as they come into port.

A special thanks to José Luis Herrera and Nilton Yarmas for coordinating the training. We also benefited greatly from the assistance of Eloy Aroni Sulca of Oceana’s Lima office who demonstrated many interesting potential applications of Global Fishing Watch in Peru. We look forward to hearing more in the future from participants in our training course and collaborating with them for successful monitoring and management of Peru’s ocean resources.

Illegal transshipment of fish between Saly Reefer and Flipper 4 fishing vessel. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.)

Machine learning and satellite data provide the first global view of transshipment activity

[This post originally appeared on the Global Fishing Watch blog.]
Illegal transshipment of fish between Saly Reefer and Flipper 4 fishing vessel. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.)

Illegal transshipment of fish between Saly Reefer and Flipper 4 fishing vessel. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.)

This week marks the publication of the first-ever global assessment of transshipment in a scientific journal. Researchers at Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth, in the journal Frontiers of Marine Science, published “Identifying Global Patterns of Transshipment Behavior.”

What is transshipment? Why does it matter? What have we learned and what remains unknown? Read on to find out.

Vessels may meet at sea for a number of reasons, such as to refuel, to exchange crew, or to deliver supplies. In the commercial fishing industry, vessels also meet to transfer catch in a process known as transshipment. Huge vessels with refrigerated holds – some large enough to hold over 100 US school buses – collect catch from multiple fishing boats at sea to carry back to port.

By enabling fishing vessels to remain on the fishing grounds, transshipment reduces fuel costs and ensures faster delivery of catch to port. As a result, many vessels that fish in the high seas or in waters far from their home ports engage in the practice. Unfortunately, it also leaves the door open for mixing illegal catch with legitimate catch, drug smuggling, forced labor and human rights abuses. Fishing vessels can remain at sea for months or even years at a time, enabling captains to keep their crew at sea indefinitely and, in some cases, resulting in de facto slavery. As a pathway for illegal catch to enter the global market (an estimated $23.5 billion worth of fish annually worldwide is illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU)), transshipment prevents an accurate measurement of the amount of marine life being taken from the sea. It obscures the seafood supply chain from hook to port and hobbles efforts to manage fisheries sustainably. Occurring far from shore and out of sight, transshipment activities have traditionally been hard to manage and relatively invisible. Data on transshipment has been virtually nonexistent, proprietary, and rarely shared publicly – until now.

With generous support from the Walton Family Foundation, Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth are applying machine learning and satellite data to study global transshipment patterns and shine a light on what has historically been an opaque practice. Previously, no public, global database of transshipment vessels existed. So, as a first step to understand global transshipment activity, we developed one, combining data from vessel registries, hard-nosed internet investigations, and applying machine learning techniques to identify potential transshipment vessels. This first public, carrier vessel database includes roughly 680 vessels, predominated by large vessels operating within Russian waters or the high seas tuna/squid fleets.

In the Indian Ocean, off the remote Saya de Malha bank, the refrigerated cargo vessel (reefer) Leelawadee was seen with two unidentified likely fishing vessels tied alongside. Image Captured by DigitalGlobe on Nov. 30, 2016. Credit: DigitalGlobe © 2017. Image by DigitalGlobe via SkyTruth.

In the Indian Ocean, off the remote Saya de Malha bank, the refrigerated cargo vessel (reefer) Leelawadee was seen with two unidentified likely fishing vessels tied alongside. Image Captured by DigitalGlobe on Nov. 30, 2016. Credit: DigitalGlobe © 2017. Image by DigitalGlobe via SkyTruth.

With databases of fishing and transshipment vessels sorted, the next challenge was to identify where these vessels met at sea. To do this, the team analyzed over 30 billion vessel tracking signals (Automatic Identification System (AIS) messages) to identify potential transshipment encounters. AIS is a collision avoidance system that transmits a vessel’s location at sea and these transmissions are collected by land and satellite-based receivers and delivered to Global Fishing Watch for automated processing. Nearly all large transshipment vessels carry AIS making it possible to identify all locations where they loiter at sea long enough to receive a transshipment, or locations where two vessels (a transshipment vessel and a fishing vessel) are in close proximity long enough to transfer catch, crew or supplies.

Applying these two methods, we have presented the first open-source and global view of transshipment. We found that over half of transshipment behavior identified using AIS may occur in the high seas and these are generally associated with regions of reduced management and oversight. This lax oversight extends to the vessels involved in potential transshipments, with nearly half of the transshipment vessels we have identified registered to flags of convenience (countries with reduced oversight and limited connection to the vessel, if you’re interested this blog post has more details). As regulations for transshipment vary widely, the data alone do not suggest illegality, but reveal patterns and hotspots of activity, the vessels involved, and provides a new perspective which can further investigations around specific incidents and inform general policy discussions.

Global Fishing Watch’s new encounters layer reveals for the first time where and when thousands of vessels are involved in close encounters at sea. 

We are only just beginning to see the true impact of this unprecedented dataset, but already it has been used to identify vessels potentially involved in catching sharks that were illegally transported through the Galapagos (described here) and in an upcoming scientific paper by research collaborators at Dalhousie University, identifying those fisheries that most heavily utilize transshipment. Our partner, Oceana also analyzed the data in their report that identified patterns of likely transshipping, top ports visited by these vessels and vessels at sea for more than 500 days. Additionally, our models have been incorporated into recent efforts to estimate the costs and profitability of high seas fishing (described here), a set of potential transshipments have been incorporated as a layer within the Global Fishing Watch public map (here) and our work has supported investigations into human right abuses within fishing fleets (Greenpeace, 2018).

Our next steps involve extending these analyses to include “bunker” vessels which provide fuel to fishing vessels at sea, which along with transshipment vessels, play a critical role in supporting high seas, distant water fishing. Combining bunkering (refueling) and transshipment events, with vessel identities (owners/operators and flag states) and additional vessel events including port visits, we will identify the social network at sea. With generous support from the Walmart Foundation, over the coming years we will also explore transshipment in tuna fisheries, analysing and mapping activities that enable global tuna fleets to stay at sea for long periods without oversight. We hope this work will help global efforts to combat illegal and unsustainable tuna fishing.

The publication of this unprecedented dataset provide the first view of the global patterns of transshipment and is the first step towards greater transparency in a previously difficult to track activity. By making the underlying data freely available it can be used by governments, NGOs and academia to support both regional and global efforts to strengthen monitoring and enforcement to eliminate IUU fishing.

Sediment or Oil?

You may recall we posted about a slick emerging from an unidentified platform off the coast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on June 4th. At the time, we noted that the slick was most likely directed by the strong currents from the nearby entrance to the Congo River as it wasn’t in line with the wind direction. In this image from June 28, we now see a second slick alongside the first.

Sentinel 1 imagery showing the slicks visible with Synthetic Aperture Radar.

This could be a sign of new construction in the area. We also noticed a slick closer to shore which led us to check Sentinel 2 imagery which allows us to see in the visual spectrum. In the inset image, from June 8th, we can see that there are long, brown trails coming from the platforms, usually a sign of sediment being kicked up by wake turbulence from strong currents hitting the structures.

Detailed view of one of the trails in Sentinel 2 imagery.

This raises the possibility that the slicks we are seeing on the radar images are not from oil but from sediment plumes. Turbidity and sediment in the water can dampen wind-driven wavelets, just like an oil slick, making a dark slick on a radar image. The fact that the wind was very low in these images, between 0-5 knots, could possibly emphasize the sediment plumes against the slack water, making them more visible than usual.

The original slick we reported on in June.

However, the way that these slicks remain coherent over 50km lends weight to them being comprised of an oily substance, especially the feathering pattern seen in the middle. This is consistent with what we expect from wind and currents pulling an oily slick in different directions.  So another possibility is that we’re seeing the intentional discharge of drilling fluids and/or “produced water” that includes residual amounts of oil.

In the end, we cannot say with certainty what we are seeing in these images. There is evidence supporting chronic leaking or discharge from the platforms, but there is also support for these being trails of sediment, kicked up by the strong currents coming from the Congo River. It’s times like this that we need some ground truth to help solve the mystery.

Pipeline Failure Cause of Fatal Oil Spill in Indonesia

An oil spill this weekend that caught fire in Balikpapan Bay, Indonesia, claimed the lives of five fishermen.  State authorities initially reported the fire was set intentionally by oil-spill responders in an attempt to burn it off, a claim that was later denied.

The bulk of the slick can be seen escaping the bay in these satellite images.  In this first image, one of Planet’s Dove satellites has captured variations in the thickness of the slick. We can see narrow, dark tendrils of oil surrounded by the lighter sheen and thinner layers of the slick. In places, the edges of the slick appear dark in contrast to the cleaner water as the oil smoothes out the surface by suppressing small wavelets produced by the wind. Even though the thinner layer of oil isn’t directly visible, we can still see the textural effect it has on the water’s surface, reducing the amount of sunglint (glitter) reflecting off the water:

PlanetScope image courtesy of Planet, April 2, 2018.

This often subtle difference in roughness between clean and oiled water is why the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is also an excellent tool for spotting slicks, as we can see in the image below. Radar distinguishes sharply between the smooth, oily water and the wind-rippled, clean water, and can see right through the clouds, giving us a clear view of the extent of the spill. This Sentinel 1 image was taken on April 1, one day before the Planet image, illustrating how the winds and current have moved the slick around:

Sentinel 1 image courtesy of European Space Agency, April 1, 2018. Bright spots in the water are vessels, most at anchor. 

Initially, authorities were zeroed in on a bulk cargo vessel, the Ever Judger, as the source of this spill.  We can understand why — the PlanetScope satellite image from April 2 shows the vessel anchored in Balikpapan Bay almost directly on top of one end of the slick:

Detail from PlanetScope image taken April 2, 2018, showing large red cargo ship near oil slick in Balikpapan Bay. Red dot at south end of ship shows the location of an AIS (Automatic Identification System) signal that was broadcast on April 1 from the bulk carrier Ever Judger. We assume the vessel has been anchored at this location. Image courtesy Planet.  AIS data courtesy ShipView / exactEarth.

But officials from Pertamina, the Indonesian state oil company, have come forward to say the spill was caused by the failure of a pipeline beneath the bay.  This pipe, installed in 1998, carries crude oil from a storage terminal on the west side of the bay to a refinery in Balikpapan.  We’ve looked for maps showing the route of this pipeline and, so far, struck out. Based on examination of the latest high-resolution imagery of the area in Google Earth (from October 2016), and knowing the locations of the terminal and the refinery (thanks to Google Maps), we’ve sketched in our best guess at where this pipeline may be located:

Map showing our best guess at the alignment of the pipeline that failed, resulting in fatal oil spill in Balikpapan Bay.

If anyone has more definitive information on this pipeline, or the precise location of the failure, please share!  Over the next few days we will continue to monitor this incident with satellite imagery, thanks to our friends at Planet and the European Space Agency.

[UPDATE April 5 – Pertamina claims the spill resulted when the Ever Judger dropped anchor without authorization in Balikpapan Bay, dragging and breaking their pipeline.]