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.

This nighttime VIIRS imagery from the Suomi-NPP satellite, taken on January 29, shows the lights of Chinese squid fishing vessels in the Pacific.

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 the 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.

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 

Satellites Leave No Place to Hide for Rogue Thai Fishing Fleet

Despite a dearth of monitoring and law enforcement in the remote Saya de Malha bank, there’s nothing secret about what’s going on in this distant area of the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar.

Last month, Greenpeace published a report asserting that a significant number of Thai fishing vessels have repeatedly moved their operations, which were shown to include illegal fishing and human trafficking, to evade detection and capture, and that they may now be acting with impunity on the Saya de Malha bank more than 7,000 km from their home port in Thailand.

As we know, seeing is believing, and in collaboration with DigitalGlobe, we have obtained high-resolution satellite images that corroborate Greenpeace’s assertions and reveal just how active the fleet is. Since November, we have documented Thai vessels gathering in one specific location on the Saya de Malha bank for the apparent transfer of fish.

The report, “Turn the Tide: Human Rights Abuse and Illegal Fishing of Thailand’s Overseas Fishing Industry,” outlines the Thai fleet’s exodus: first from their staple fishing grounds in Indonesian waters to a remote region off of Papua New Guinea, then to the Saya de Malha Bank. The evasive moves correspond to the hardline stance against illegal fishing by Indonesia in 2014 that included blowing up illegal vessels, and to subsequent increases in enforcement by Papua New Guinea in August of 2015.

The imagery we’ve captured from Saya de Malha Bank is part of a larger effort to gather high resolution satellite imagery of ocean surface around refrigerated cargo vessels in different parts of the world. With their large carrying capacity, these refrigerated vessels, called “reefers,” collect catch from multiple fishing vessels for transport to shore.

Not only does this type of transshipment allow the fishing fleet to continue working the fishing grounds for months, or even years at a time, but it facilitates the mixing of legal and illegal catch, which is why it is prohibited in many circumstances. What’s more, fishing vessels that remain at sea almost indefinitely have greater potential for abusive labor practices, including the enslavement of crew. The move by the Thai fleet to Saya de Malha almost requires the use of reefers as an efficient way of transporting catch to the home port from such distant fishing grounds.

Using AIS signals from known reefer vessels, we identified precise locations for aiming DigitalGlobe’s satellite sensors. With the knowledge that fishing vessels often don’t broadcast AIS while engaged in illegal activities such as unauthorized transshipment, we were interested in finding out if we could capture suspect vessels using imagery in the vicinity of a reefer.

One of the reefers we chose for imaging, the Thai vessel Leelawadee, seemed a good target. “I saw that it was stopped at the north end of the bank,” says our analyst Bjorn Bergman. “It’s in a location where it may be shallow enough to anchor.” In addition, Bjorn had documented a possible transshipment between the Leelawadee and an unnamed vessel in 2015. That event was documented using AIS data as part of SkyTruth’s assistance with the investigation by the Associated Press into Thai vessels fishing with trafficked and enslaved crews.  It is no surprise that it occurred in the waters of Papua New Guinea.

The first image of Leelawadee on the Saya de Malha bank was captured on Nov 23, 2016. It showed her alongside a refueling vessel, the Mahachai Marine 1.  Refueling at sea, also known as “bunkering,” is another necessity for fishing vessels operating far from their home ports for extended periods of time.

Leelawadee reefer (larger vessel) tied to bunkering vessel Mahachai Marine 1. (DigitalGlobe)

Seven days later, on the November 30, the satellite captured five vessels in one pass: the Leelawadee with two vessels tied alongside her and a vessel tied to the stern of the Mahachai Marine 1 (see images below). Although the three unknown vessels appear to be fishing boats, none were broadcasting AIS signals.

The refrigerated cargo vessel (reefer) Leelawadee with two unidentified likely fishing vessels tied alongside. Captured by DigitalGlobe on November 30, 2016. (DigitalGlobe)

Refueling vessel, Mahachai Marine 1, with unidentified vessel tied astern. (DigitalGlobe)

Since we began our efforts to target imaging satellites on reefers, we have turned up several similar “dark” fleets of fishing vessels in other parts of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. Combined with AIS data, we are able to flesh out an even more complete picture of what these vessels are doing. In the case of the Leelawadee, AIS-derived tracks over four years indicate that she has made repeated trips between Thailand and an area inside Papua New Guinea’s exclusive economic zone known as The Dogleg, a poorly monitored, remote region rife with suspected illegal activity. Our data reveals many instances in which vessels have crossed from Indonesian waters into the Dogleg, likely to transship their catch. On July 29, 2015, the Leelawadee rendezvoused for many hours with an unnamed fishing vessel broadcasting an irregular AIS number not tied to a vessel identity.

Then in November 2016, both vessels met again, this time on the Saya de Malha bank. They spent several hours together, indicating a possible transshipment. That rendezvous occurred hours after we captured the photograph of the Leelawadee with two “dark” vessels tied alongside, and right before she left the area on a northeasterly course back to port in Thailand.

Track of the Leelawadee (red) and an unnamed fishing vessel (white) rendezvousing in Papua New Guinea waters in July 2015, then again on the Saya de Malha bank in November 2016.

“That both vessels were seen in the Dogleg, and have now moved to the Saya de Malha Bank provides tangible evidence to support the Greenpeace report” says Bjorn. “And what’s interesting is the pattern is similar to the situation we saw with the AP investigation where these Thai reefers would return again and again to one particular location.” It’s worth noting that the encounter between the Leelawadee and the unnamed vessel that occurred in the Dogleg also followed a transshipment that was photographed in the same location by DigitalGlobe. That photograph led to the capture of the reefer Silver Sea 2, which reportedly had been receiving catch from fishing vessels with enslaved crew.  [Read our earlier post on this investigation.]

2016 – The Good, the Bad, and the Future

2016 has been a very mixed year for the environment. Despite some positive developments for conservation over the past year, there are even greater threats to public and ecological health looming on the horizon. We have a lot of work ahead of us in 2017, but your support can help us continue to hold government and industry accountable in the new year (while giving you a break on your taxes for 2016).

Over the past year, documents came to light proving that federal officials made misleading and unsubstantiated edits to a major report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the threats posed by hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking). SkyTruth was among the first in 2015 to specifically identify the inconsistencies in the draft report, but at least the final report more accurately quantifies the extent of known cases of contamination from fracking. However, while low oil and gas prices have slowed some of the push for new fracking and drilling, pipelines have emerged as a new point of contention. The Army Corps of Engineers has delayed approving a river crossing for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, but as we wrote this month there are many more pipeline projects underway – all of them posing risks to public safety, clean air, and clean water.

Above: Footage from the 2010 Enbridge Oil Spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

Off the coast of the United States, President Obama recently withdrew millions of acres of Arctic and Atlantic waters from offshore drilling. This environmental victory is the result of numerous environmental campaigns over many years, including our efforts to document the risks and accidents associated with new drilling. Additionally, President Obama is moving quickly to protect some areas from new offshore oil drilling before Donald Trump takes office in January 2017. We’ve already documented some of Exxon’s drilling activity in Russian Arctic waters (below), but we will have to be even more vigilant if ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson becomes Secretary of State.

Unfortunately, little has changed in the Gulf of Mexico where even after a court settlement negotiated by our partners at the Waterkeeper Alliance, Taylor Energy platform #23051 continues to leak. Taylor Energy, however, is now reneging on their responsibility to contain the ongoing leak, and is suing the federal government to recover $423 million out of $666 million which they were compelled set aside for cleanup and containment.

In July, a federal appeals court again upheld an EPA decision to revoke a massive mountaintop mine expansion permit in Logan County, West Virginia. The EPA decision was supported by scientific studies on the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining, some directly informed by SkyTruth’s satellite derived mountaintop removal footprint data. Yet across Appalachia, Trump and other pro-coal politicians won overwhelmingly on the promise of bringing back coal jobs. These promises likely mean decrease in regulatory oversight and cutting enforcement capability, so we will need satellites and citizen scientists to be even more vigilant.

Donald Trump and supporters at a campaign rally in Charleston, West Virginia. Image Credit: Getty Images

Out at sea, things have been looking up. In partnership with Google and Oceana and with keynote addresses from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and actor/ocean advocate Leonardo DiCaprio, we officially launched the first public version of Global Fishing Watch. Our work using satellite data to track suspicious vessel activity on the open ocean has been chronicled in the New York Times Magazine, helped bust a Chinese fleet illegally using drift-nets in the southern Indian Ocean, and prompted the government of Belize to halt seismic testing around a protected reef – sending an oil and gas survey vessel packing. But we can’t do it alone, which is why we are making tools like Global Fishing Watch open to the public for all to use.

On November 9, 2016, the day after the U.S. elections made it clear that we will be facing at least four years of a pro-drilling, pro-mining, anti-regulation Administration, SkyTruth President John Amos wrote:

We believe governments and businesses work better to protect the environment, and to ensure human health and well being, when the consequences of their action and inaction are plain for all to see. Persistent public vigilance has always been necessary for a functioning democracy. It’s especially crucial when governments are disdainful of environmental protection and public health and safety, dismissive of science-based decisionmaking with public participation, and openly hostile toward the public ownership and long-term stewardship of our lands and waters.

This means we need you. We need your support, your engagement, and your vigilance. If you can see it, you can change it.

 

The Problem(s) with Pipelines: An Anthology

On Sunday, Dec. 4 the Army Corps of Engineers issued a decision which will again delay construction of  the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The ruling was cheered by water protectors entrenched in the path of the pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. These representatives of indigenous nations, environmental activists, veterans, and many other groups have been resisting pressure from private security and law enforcement officers from at least 76 different state and federal agencies or departments, as well as enduring sub-zero blizzard conditions. However, the ruling does not definitively end the controversy, it only delays the decision until further environmental impact studies are conducted.

Unfortunately the choices before the Army Corps appear to be limited, given the fact that as much as 87% of the North Dakota portion of the pipeline is already complete, and nearly 50% of the almost $3.8 billion dollar project is completed and/or in the final stages of cleanup and reclamation. Furthermore, any further environmental impact study and public comment for the Army Corps could easily hand the decison over to Trump Administration which has expressed support the pipeline (despite the obvious conflict of interest with the President-Elect owning stock in several of the key companies involved).  So while hands are wrung and ink is spilled on the specifics of this pipeline, let’s take a look at why people around the world are rallying  in opposition to ANY new pipelines.

The short answer is 1) accidents happen, and 2) they are multi-million dollar investment projects which further lock us into years, even decades, of fossil fuel extraction and emissions.

You can explore this map of pipeline spills and releases from our friends at FracTracker, but what exactly do some of these incidents look like on the ground and in the water? Here are some of the most egregious cases from the past decade.

Belle Fourche Pipeline Leak, Dec. 10, 2016. Image Credit – Jennifer Skjod, N. Dakota Dept. of Health

Western North Dakota, near Belfield – December 5, 2016: Just this month, less than 150 miles from Oceti Sakowin Camp, a leak was discovered in the Belle Fourche pipeline. An estimated 176,000 gallons leaked and crews are reportedly testing whether or not they can burn some of the spilled oil to stop further spread of the oil.

As of Dec. 15, ten days after the spill was discovered, less than 1/3rd of the oil had been recovered. But this is the not the first time that True Companies, the pipeline operator, has been in the news.

Yellowstone River, northeastern Wyoming – January 17, 2015: True Company/Bridger Pipeline’s Poplar oil line leaked 32,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri River (and by extension, upstream of Standing Rock). The pipeline was supposed to be buried eight feet beneath the river bed, but after the spill investigators discovered that the pipeline had become completely exposed. And it wouldn’t be the first time for the Yellowstone River. In July 2013, an Exxon pipeline also leaked 63,000 gallons of oil directly into a different section of the river when it too became exposed and was damaged by flood debris.

Oil is hard enough to remove from water, but what about when that oil sinks?

Kalamazoo River, Michigan – July 25, 2010: In south-central Michigan a thirty-inch pipeline carrying diluted bitumen from Canada blew a six-foot gash along a corroded seam, releasing 843,000 gallons of heavy oil product into the Kalamazoo River. Canadian energy transporter Enbridge, the operator of the pipeline, would ultimately be deemed responsible for the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, with a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) official comparing the company’s spill response to the “Keystone Cops.

Fittingly, the Enbridge spill quickly became Exhibit A in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline which was ultimately rejected by President Obama in 2015. While scientists and activists debated whether or not tar sands bitumen diluted for transport was more corrosive to pipelines than regular oil,  another major tar sands pipeline would make headlines.

Mayflower, Arkansas – March 29, 2013: In a quiet Arkansas suburb, Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline burst, spilling an estimated 210,000 gallons of tar sands bitumen through a residential subdivision and into nearby Lake Conway. With assistance the Arkansas Chapter of Sierra Club, we used satellite imagery taken before and after the disaster to document the impact on the community and nearby public lands.

But it is not just the United States concerned about new oil pipelines. Our neighbors in Canada have also had their fair share of pipeline accidents and have their own slate of new pipeline projects concerning them.

Burnaby, British Columbia –July 24, 2007 : On a warm summer afternoon in British Columbia, a contractor’s backhoe struck the Transmountain Pipeline near Westridge, releasing a gusher of over 59,000 gallons of crude oil into a residential neighborhood. But in 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently approved Kinder Morgan’s plans to expand the Transmountain Pipeline, while making moves to block Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline.

In addition to spills on land, locals are deeply concerned about the risk of oil spills from increased oil tanker traffic along the coasts. Those concerns were brought back to the fore when a tug boat, the Nathan E. Stewart, ran aground near Bella Bella, B.C. while pushing an empty fuel barge. Even without any cargo in the barge, fuel and hydraulic fluids from the tug contaminated the shoreline and shellfish beds while it took over a month to extract the Stewart from its watery resting place.

These spills have all focused on oil pipelines, but natural gas and refined petroluem pipelines pose their own unique threat.

Sissonville, West Virginia – December 11, 2012: Here in the Mountain State, an aging 20-inch transmission line exploded a few years ago, enveloping Interstate 77 in a wall of flames and destroying several homes. Fortunately there were no fatalities. The pipeline was constructed in the 1960’s.

Salem Township, Pennsylvania – April 29, 2016: More recently, a thirty-inch gas transmission line in western Pennsylvania exploded, destroying a house and hospitalizing a 26-year-old with third-degree burns over 75% of his body. The Spectra Energy transmission line was installed in the 1980’s.

Shelby County, Alabama – Oct. 31, 2016: An excavator conducting repairs from a prior incident on the Colonial Pipeline struck the massive gasoline transmission line, causing a fiery explosion and ultimately killing two. The Colonial Pipeline provides the East Coast with 40% of the gasoline consumed and is the largest petroleum distribution system in the U.S.

As we have published before, even the Obama Administration has fallen short in addressing serious concerns surrounding pipeline safety. For all of the claims that modern pipelines will be safe and loaded with spill-prevention tech, we’ve yet to see clear evidence of this technology stopping major spills. Even in the Gulf of Mexico, Shell recently lost 90,000 gallons of oil from a subsea pipeline but the person credited with discovering it was not the pipeline operator, but a helicopter pilot who just happened to be passing by.

Even assuming that we could put an end to this litany of disasters, many people are standing up to pipelines because each new project is a multi-million dollar commitment to perpetuate further fossil fuel extraction and consumption for decades to come. In some states and regions, New England for example, companies have proposed passing the construction costs on to ratepayers, even those who don’t consume the gas directly.  If this subject concerns you, we urge you to investigate what kind of pipeline proposals may be in the works in your region. Here are just a few we are aware of:

Mountain Valley Pipeline – West Virginia, Virginia. Interstate natural gas transmission line. Public Comments due Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016

Mountaineer Gas – Washington Co., Maryland; Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson County, West Virginia: Local natural gas distribution system. More info on public comments and meetings – Eastern Panhandle Protectors

Trans Mountain Pipeline – British Columbia, Canada. Oil pipeline. More info from Dogwood Initiative.

Pacific Connector LNG – Oregon. Natural gas pipeline associated with an LNG terminal for export. More info on the pipeline and Jordan Cove LNG terminal at Citizens Against LNG.

Rover Pipeline – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan. Interstate gas transmission line. More info from Ohio River Citizens’ Alliance

Buckingham Compressor Stations – Virginia. An infrastructure upgrade linked to the planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline. More info at Friends of Buckingham, Virginia.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline – West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina. Interstate gas transmission line. More info from Wild Virginia, Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance, and Friends of Nelson County.

Bayou Bridge Pipeline – Louisiana. Regional oil pipeline connecting major hubs with refineries. More info from Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

Mariner East 2 – Pennsylvania. Intra-state gas liquids transmission pipeline. More info from FracTracker.

Pilgrim Pipeline – New York, New Jersey. Interstate oil pipeline. More info from the Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline.

Sabal Trail Pipeline – Alabama, Georgia, Florida. Interstate natural gas transmission pipeline. More info from Stop Sabal Trail Pipleline.

Know of other pipeline projects that should be listed here? Shoot us an email: info@skytruth.org

Confirmed: EPA Findings Edited to Downplay Fracking Impacts

Documents obtained by journalists at Marketplace and APM Reports revealed that federal officials made eleventh-hour edits to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) long-awaited Draft Assessment on the Potential Impacts to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities. The unsubstantiated edits downplayed the risks of hydraulic fracturing leading to a flurry of headlines claiming the EPA found little risk in fracking.

In fact, the more nuanced language of the report found evidence of contamination events and threats to groundwater, but ultimately the EPA lacked the data to conclude if fracking was having “widespread, systemic impact…” on drinking water. We wrote about these contradictions between the EPA press release and the actual report in June 2015 post entitled:

Word Games Continue: Just What Evidence Did EPA Not Find?

Earlier in 2016 the EPA Science Advisory Board also criticized the edited conclusions and called on the Agency to substantiate their claims or consider revising the report.

Words matter. Science matters. Don’t take headlines and executive summaries for granted, especially as we head into a political transition already swamped with climate deniers and a who’s who of the fossil fuel industry. Become as informed as you can from primary sources, and also support watchdogs and journalists who have proven effective at accurately reporting on what is happening in the world.

Read the full story from Marketplace and APM Reports:

EPA’s late changes to fracking study downplay risk of drinking water pollution

Real Time Evidence Leads Government of Belize to Reverse Decision

Large, heavy ships are slow to turn around, and so is environmental degradation once it gets going. But last week, public outcry sent a seismic survey vessel packing and halted the first nascent steps of an oil exploration program off the coast of Belize.

Armed with aerial photos and satellite-derived vessel tracks, Belizeans rallied to convince their government to suspend seismic surveying operation just one day after it began. Their protests stand on two premises. One: no environmental impact studies have been conducted. And two: in December 2015, the Government of Belize agreed to ban offshore oil exploration in the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the second largest barrier reef in the world and a UNESCO Heritage site.

Despite these facts, on October 12th, Oceana Belize discovered that seismic testing had been approved for offshore and was intended to take place less than one mile from the reef. Used in deep-sea oil exploration, seismic surveys shoot powerful sonic waves into the water to gauge the geological resources held in the rock layers beneath the seafloor. The shock waves are not only powerful enough to penetrate the seabed, but they travel thousands of miles through the water causing damage to whales, dolphins and manatees as well as scaring fish from important habitats and killing their eggs and larvae.

On Monday, October 17th, SeaBird exploration, the company contracted to conduct the survey, announced that their ship, the Northern Explorer, would begin seismic blast surveys in Belize waters. The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage called for the Government to stay the decision to allow seismic testing and to open discussions with the Belizean people, more than 190,000 of whom are economically dependent on the reef’s resources.

The very next day, Oceana posted video and photos on Facebook showing the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize with its seismic array already deployed. Jackie Savitz, Oceana’s Vice President for the US and Global Fishing Watch, also reached out to SkyTruth for assistance tracking the vessel’s activities.

SkyTruth’s analyst Bjorn Bergman verified the Northern Explorer’s track based on signals from the vessel’s Automatic Identification System. He sent Oceana images of the track as it traversed an area of ocean around the barrier reef.

Track of the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize

Track of the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize

In combination with photos and videos, the satellite tracks served as a powerful motivator on social media and helped galvanize opposition to the survey operation. “SkyTruth got us the real-time information, which is what we needed to make timely decisions,” Savitz says, “and to communicate with the government to make sure they understood that we knew what was happening.”

On October 20, two days after the ship began operations, the government of Belize issued a stop work order and published the following statement:

Based on multiple concerns raised by concerned citizens regarding the seismic survey currently being conducted in the deep offshore of Belize as well as the fact that extensive consultation with a wider ground of stakeholders did not occur prior the commencement of the survey, the Government of Belize (GOB) has decided that it will suspend seismic operations until such consultations can be conducted. Accordingly, the Geology and Petroleum Department will inform the ship that they are to cease seismic operations immediately.

That same day, SeaBird exploration announced that they were returning their vessel to port to prepare to leave Belize. “The fact that the Belizean government stopped the seismic blasting when the public was informed is a classic example of how transparency can actually lead to improved ocean conservation,” says Savitz.

 

Rampal Coal-Fired Power Plant Threatens Sundarbans

The Sundarbans: a near-mythic landscape of forest and swamp, byzantine river channels and tidal mud flats, one of the last strongholds of the highly endangered Bengal tiger.  Straddling the border separating India and Bangladesh, this impenetrable wilderness spans the mouths of the Ganges River as its broad delta meets the stormy Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.  This is one of the special places on earth that is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  That’s why concern is mounting over the construction of a new coal-fired power plant just upstream in Bangladesh, near the town of Rampal. One of the world’s poorest countries, Bangladesh needs stable sources of electricity to improve the general standard of living. But the location of this power plant is problematic. It’s being built along the bank of a distributary channel of the Ganges, one of the world’s biggest rivers, prone to regular flooding.  It is essentially at sea level, in a region routinely thrashed by strong tropical cyclones that push massive storm surges up those channels and far inland.  As global warming pushes up sea level, and is predicted to make tropical storms more intense, these problems will only get worse. (Irony alert: much of the global warming that imperils low-lying island nations and coastal nations like Bangladesh is a due to CO2 emissions from… coal-fired power plants.)

UNESCO spells out the risks to the Sundarbans in this report. Air pollution and fly-ash deposition downwind will impact the mangrove forests and alter the chemistry of surface waters; onsite storage of coal-ash in such a flood prone area poses a significant risk of water contamination (as we’ve seen here in the US, with a massive coal-ash spill in Tennessee and currently ongoing spills caused by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Matthew); and the transport of coal by large cargo ships increases the possibility of large oil spills, as we observed when two ships collided in the Sundarbans in December 2014.

We thought we would take a look at the Rampal power plant site using Google Earth to show what’s happening as the construction progresses:

skytruth-rampal-overview

Location of the Rampal coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh, currently under construction. The remaining intact mangrove forests of The Sundarbans are dark green.

skytruth-rampal-location

A closer look at the Rampal power plant site, on the eastern bank of a distributary channel of the Ganges River.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2001-september-29

Detail view of the Rampal site as it appeared in 2001, prior to any construction activity.  See time-series of matching views below.

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Rampal site in November 2010, prior to construction activity. Note that most of the area is flooded.

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Rampal site in April 2013. Construction activity is underway. Fill material (light brown) is being used to build up the site.

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Rampal site, March 2016. Fill material has been added to elevate and level the site, and levees (?) (bright strips?) are apparently being added along the perimeter.

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Rampal site, March 2016. The site footprint now covers an area of 520 acres (nearly one square mile).