Message from the President

John Amos speaking at the WWF 2015 Fuller Symposium at National Geographic HQ, Washington, D.C.

John Amos speaking at the WWF 2015 Fuller Symposium at National Geographic HQ, Washington, D.C.

“Can technology save the environment?”

That’s the question that confronted me and other participants in the 2015 Fuller Symposium hosted by World Wildlife Fund.  There’s plenty of reason to believe that it can: satellites are collecting ever-more detailed images of what’s happening at land and sea; drones are boosting the impact of anti-poaching patrols; remote monitoring devices are getting cheaper and easier to use, enabling continuous measurement of air and water quality; and all of this growth in capabilities is tied to increasingly complex networks that allow broader and faster delivery of information.  We’re getting smarter and faster every day when it comes to monitoring and measuring what’s happening here on Planet Earth.

Like many here at SkyTruth I consider myself a techno-optimist, yet my answer to that question is an unequivocal NO.  Better technology gives us better tools as we tackle our planet’s formidable challenges.  But without an engaged, active team of conservation-minded people around the world putting those tools to work, technology alone will fail.

That’s why I was so pleased to see this message posted recently to our Facebook page by a citizen-activist in Italy:

“For the past 8-9 years I have been fighting oil+gas in Italy, and have been using many tools to try to spread information, activism, and showing people the ill effects of drilling. Among these tools, the pictures from SkyTruth. A few days ago Italy [voted to hold a referendum] banning oil+gas within a 12 mile buffer zone offshore. It was the result of all of our activism… Through SkyTruth I was able to show them Louisiana, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, and many other locations. It helped me win over public support and stop them.”  

Motivating people to take action on behalf of environmental conservation — and giving them powerful tools and images to make them more effective — is exactly the reason I started SkyTruth in the first place.

2015 was a big year for us. We added two skilled staff, bringing us to a core team of eight here in Shepherdstown, supported by three consulting programmers in Sweden and Argentina.  With a 25% increase in our budget, we maintained a high level of engagement on pollution tracking, oil and gas drilling and fracking, hardrock and coal mining, and environmental monitoring; all while managing the intense workplan, rapid growth and high level media attention surrounding our Global Fishing Watch project with Oceana and Google.  That’s a blockbuster partnership, giving us access to cutting-edge cloud-computing and machine-learning tools along with vast datasets to help advance our mission of making the invisible, visible.

Because if you can see it, you can change it.

– John


Click & Scroll Below to Explore our Work


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 of Mexico 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 spreadsheet update back into the interactive SkyTruth Alerts used by thousands of subscribers.


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 illustrated the spooky spread of drilling in Ohio’s Utica Shale, while below we animated a visualization of the drilling boom in western Pennsylvania using data created by our FrackFinder volunteers.

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 liberated this data without our persistence over the past three years.


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 nationwide, we compiled interactive maps to help visualize the pervasive threat posed by abandoned coal mines and inactive metal mines throughout the US.

In November 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 in December, this kind of spill from mine waste impoundments is all too common around the world.


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 (AP) 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. To our knowledge, this is the first time satellite imagery has been successfully targeted on a vessel potentially engaged in illegal activity at sea. The AP subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on these travesties of slavery, smuggling, and illegal fishing in southeast Asian 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.


In 2015 our staff continued to grow with the addition of Research Program Manager David Kroodsma and Geospatial Analyst Christian Thomas. Check out our staff directory to learn more about all of the fine people who make SkyTruth what it has become.

We also said godspeed to founding board member Dr. Elliot Norse (right), who is shifting tracks after 37 years in the field of marine conservation and 14 years with us. Read his farewell message and learn more about our board.



Jan. 6Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – To fill in the blanks on Marcellus data, volunteers turn to crowdsourcing: Features FrackFinder initiatives as an example of citizen-scientists contributing to better understanding fracking and the shale boom.

Jan. 19Radio Australia – New technology shows new fishing ban in waters off Kiribati working: Interview with David Manthos about using Global Fishing Watch to monitor the closure of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) to commercial fishing.

Jan. 26Yale Environment 360 – How Technology is Protecting World’s Richest Marine Reserve: Discusses our work monitoring marine protected areas.

Feb. 5NPR – Gotcha: Satellites Help Strip Seafood Pirates Of Their Booty: Interview with John aboutGlobal Fishing Watch and using AIS to track suspected illegal fishing activity in the waters of Palau.

Feb. 26MSNBC – One of the Biggest US Oil Spills? Interview with John about the chronic Taylor Energy oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

March 16Fast Company – Inside The Satellite Detective Agencies That Catch The Companies Destroying The Planet—From Space: Discusses SkyTruth and monitoring/transparency initiatives such as Global Fishing Watch.

April 7Desmog Blog – New Federal Fracking Rules Rely on FracFocus Even as EPA Research Highlights Site’s Flaws: Discusses SkyTruth’s work extracting data from FracFocus and the Bureau of Land Management’s decision on fracking chemical transparency.

April 16Associated Press (AP) – Secrecy Shrouds Decade-Old Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico: AP investigation into the ongoing leak at Taylor Energy #23051. The investigation pressured the U.S. Coast Guard to increase their estimates of the spill rate to a flow 20x larger than Taylor had ever acknowledged.

April 20Fusion – Terrible Anniversary – In the five years since BP, there have been nearly 10000 spills reported in the Gulf of Mexico: Features SkyTruth’s analysis and map of reported oil and hazmat spills in the Gulf since the BP blowout was capped in 2010.

April 20Washington Post – Lessons from the BP oil spill on the fifth anniversary: Features interview with John Amos on likelihood of another major offshore blowout.

April 28WV Public Broadcasting – Appalachian Voices Releases Mountaintop Mining Mapping Tool: Discusses SkyTruth’s work with Appalachian Voices on mapping mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining.

May 8State Impact PA – FracFocus upgrades availability of data on oil & gas operations: Interview with John Amos about FracFocus making their data available in machine-readable format.

May 16 ­– Huffington Post – US says decade-old Gulf oil leak could last another century: Cites SkyTruth’s estimate of the rate and total amount of oil leaked from the Taylor site.

June 15National Geographic – Tiny Team Uses Satellites to Bust Illegal Fishing Worldwide: Video interview about SkyTruth and developing tools to shine a light on commercial fishing around the world.

July 16New York Times: Stowaways and Crimes Aboard a Scofflaw Ship: Features images by SkyTruth and chronicles the journeys of the Dona Liberta, a vessel which SkyTruth spotted in 2012 polluting off the coast of Africa.

July 27AP: Associated Press tracks slave boats to Papua New Guinea: Discusses SkyTruth’s role in securing a satellite image of transshipment between unidentified fishing trawlers and the Silver Sea 2 in the waters of Papua New Guinea.

Aug. 27AP: Settlement Reached In Lawsuit Over Gulf Oil Leak: Discusses the settlement in the Taylor Energy lawsuit and SkyTruth’s discovery and ongoing tracking of the leak.

Aug. 28Southern Studies: The Katrina oil spill disaster – A harbinger for the Atlantic Coast? Features a SkyTruth image and discusses our tracking of the Taylor Energy leak in context with proposed offshore oil drilling along the Eastern Seaboard.

Sept. 1Discovery News: Map of 65,000 Old Mines Across US Reveals Risks: Features SkyTruth map of abandoned and inactive metal mines across the US.

Sept 13The Guardian: Chile plans world’s biggest marine park to protect Easter Island fish stocks: Discusses SkyTruth’s work on IUU fishing and vessel monitoring of the waters around Easter Island.

Oct. 30Antara News: Govt. to launch Global Fishing Watch Covers Indonesian government’s announcement of partnership with SkyTruth, Google, and Oceana to share VMS data for Global Fishing Watch.

Nov. 24The Guardian – To catch a fishing thief, SkyTruth uses data from the air, land and sea Interview with John Amos about SkyTruth’s past, present and future

Dec. 27National Geographic – 15 Huge Ocean Conservation Victories of 2015: Lists Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth’s technological advances to combat illegal fishing among the ocean victories of 2015.


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