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.


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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.


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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.

SkyTruth Data Analysis Aids Fishing Slavery Investigation


“They got it!!”

Late in the afternoon on July 14, an investigative journalist from the Associated Press (AP) informed SkyTruth that over three months of research, behavioral analysis, and satellite vessel tracking had culminated in photographic evidence of a refrigerated cargo ship receiving transshipments at sea from fishing vessels believed to be crewed by slave labor.  [UPDATE: On August 12, the Silver Sea 2 was seized and brought to shore by the Indonesian Navy, pending further investigation.]

Detail from WorldView-3 satellite image showing two fishing trawlers tied up to the refrigerated cargo vessel Silver Sea 2 in the waters of Papua New Guinea on July 14, 2015. The cargo holds are open, suggesting that the ship is receiving catch from these trawlers implicated in slave labor.  Credit: DigitalGlobe/AP

Thanks to daring investigative journalism supported by data-driven intelligence from SkyTruth, the lawlessness of the high seas has recently been making major headlines.  In March, the AP published the results of a year-long investigation that revealed slave-caught seafood in the supply chains of major American supermarkets. Their stories traced the repatriation of one Myanmar fisherman after 22 years separated from his family, and prompted the rescue of hundreds of migrant fishermen from captivity on remote Indonesian islands. Last month, in a tour-de-force of international journalism, the New York Times exposed the contemptible track record of the Dona Liberta, a name-changing, flag-switching cargo ship that we observed spilling oil off the coast of Angola back in 2012. The Times investigation also explored slavery, murder, and poaching on the high seas in their four-part series The Outlaw Ocean.In April, SkyTruth began monitoring more than half a dozen vessels suspected to be involved in the trafficking and enslavement of Burmese migrants on fishing boats working the sea off Southeast Asia. 

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© murphygodzilla

Through careful analysis of satellite-derived vessel location data over a six-month period, we were able to help the AP acquire the satellite image above, capturing an apparent transshipment at sea, where fish are transferred from one vessel to another. Many of the fishing vessels we are interested in are exempt from broadcasting their location via the Automatic Identification System (AIS), but because they stay at sea for months at a time, must regularly offload their catch to refrigerated cargo ships (also known as “reefers”) like the Silver Sea 2. For safety reasons, large ships including reefers are required by international law to broadcast their identity, location and speed via AIS, giving us a way to catch a glimpse of the shadowy world of transshipments at sea.

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April 2015 – Silver Sea 2 completes a circuit through the ‘Dog Leg’ region of the Papua New Guinea EEZ. Three months later, DigitalGlobe would capture an image of the Silver Sea 2 in almost exactly the same location, receiving catch from suspect fishing vessels.  Credit: AIS data from exactEarth and ORBCOMM; map by SkyTruth.


For three weeks the Silver Sea 2 lingered in a region of Papua New Guinea’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) called the Dog Leg. During this time, the reefer stopped broadcasting its location and was presumably receiving shipments of seafood from trawlers operating in the area. On May 17, the Silver Sea 2 turned its AIS transponder back on and headed west, destined for Indonesia and Thailand. Looking back in time, we found evidence of two other Silver Sea reefers making this same circuit. Armed with intelligence that revealed a predictable pattern, our team was optimistic that we might be able to get a satellite snapshot of the “Dark Fleet” that was offloading fish to the Silver Sea reefers. 

Intentionally collecting a high-resolution satellite image of a fishing boat underway at sea is difficult. Transshipments, however, are another story:  reefers are stationary, or moving very slowly and predictably, for hours to days at a time while they receive catch from vessels in the area. There is still a possibility that clouds could obscure the target, or no fishing vessels are alongside at the moment the satellite flies overhead, but the odds of success are better.


460xOn July 13th we notified AP that
Silver Sea 2 was returning, following the same pattern we observed in April. Another Thai reefer, the Sea Network, was also anchored in this coastal transshipment area. With two reefers likely transshiping catch, the time was ripe to go for it. Later that day, the WorldView-3 satellite collected an image of Silver Sea 2 rendezvousing with two vessels believed to be part of the slave fleet previously operating out of Benjina.

Silver Sea 2 60 day 8-7 no EEZ

60-day track of the Silver Sea 2, as of August 7, 2015. Image Credit: ShipView from exactEarth. Includes material © 2015 exactEarth Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Silver Sea 2 is now well under way toward Thailand, but news of this transshipment being spotted by satellite appears to have prompted authorities step up their efforts. Another Thai cargo ship, Blissful Reefer, has been detained and eight more fishermen have been freed from purported slavery at sea.

Where’s the Fishing?

Apparently, off southern South America, it’s just outside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Chile.

Here’s another nighttime DMSP satellite image composite from our friends at NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center (as always, click to see a bigger version). We’ve planted it in Google Earth. It was made by combining three years worth of cloud-free nighttime satellite images, with 2011 displayed in red, 2010 in green and 2009 in blue. Look at the patterns of color out in the ocean, massed against Chile’s EEZ boundary, shown as a green line:

These patterns are probably made by the lights of fishing vessels: cargo ships are in a hurry to get from Port A to Port B, and don’t linger in the open ocean.  There are a variety of fishing restrictions within Chilean waters designed to protect local fishing and fisheries by limiting industrial fishing, but on the high seas beyond the EEZ boundary anything goes.  The fishing within Chile’s territorial waters must be relatively good, because this map shows that fishing vessels are trying to get as close as possible without crossing the line — although if you look closely, you can see indications of repeated incursions into Chilean waters.

Based on a study of Chilean fisheries, we think much of the fishing effort revealed on this image is probably targeting swordfish.

Shrimp Trawling Re-Suspending BP Oil?

Way back last autumn I had a nagging thought: once oil impacted areas of the Gulf were re-opened to fishing in the wake of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill, would shrimp trawlers repeatedly churn up oil that had settled on the seafloor?

Google Earth panoramic image showing sediment plumes raised by bottom-trawl fishing for shrimp along the Louisiana coast. More images here.

As the federal government proceeds with a long and complicated legal and scientific process, the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, they are holding a series of public meetings to get input and comments from affected Gulf-area residents. At a meeting last week in Biloxi, Mississippi,

Vietnamese shrimpers said they have pulled up nets full of oil from the seafloor and have had to decide whether to report the oil to the Coast Guard, which would mean dumping their day’s catch, or pretend they don’t see the oil.

John Lliff, a supervisor with NOAA’s Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program, said no one knows how much of the seafloor is covered in oil.

Until the oil totally disappears, it seems highly likely that this will continue. But we don’t have a clue how long the oil will linger, or what the impacts of this would be on the health of fishermen, the recovery of the Gulf ecosystem, or the safety of seafood.

Meanwhile, some of our politicians seem to be ignoring the fact that the world’s worst accidental oil spill happened here in our own back yard less than a year ago, and are intent on returning to business as usual without assuring the public that drilling is any safer than it was last April. Does anybody else see this as a recipe for another disaster?

BP / Gulf Oil Spill – Are Shrimpers Inadvertently Churning Up Oil?

There have been conflicting reports coming from coastal Lousiana since October 22, suggesting that large areas of East and West Bays near Southwest Pass are covered with long streamers of what appears to be weathered oil, possibly originating from the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill. Some of the local fishermen insist it’s oil; the Coast Guard thinks it’s an algal bloom. Samples taken by the Coast Guard are awating analysis. [UPDATE 10/28/10 10:00 am ET – LSU scientists confirm the substance is mostly algae with only trace amounts of oil]

Oil or algae? Photo of West Bay, Louisiana taken October 22. Source: Matthew Hinton via the Times-Picayune. Photo gallery here.

At SkyTruth we’re concerned that fishing activity could potentially stir up any oil that’s sitting on the seafloor, resuspending it in the water column. We don’t know if that’s what has happened near Southwest Pass. But we do know that bottom-trawling for shrimp in the Gulf routinely churns up the muddy seafloor, creating long sediment-laden plumes that trail for miles behind the trawlers and can be seen on satellite images. Check out our gallery of trawling images, and read more about it on this blog.

Google Earth image showing muddy plume of sediment raised by a shrimp trawler at work along the Louisiana coast. Image taken before the BP spill.

NOAA reports they haven’t yet found any signs of oil sitting on the Gulf seafloor. Other scientists claim they found inches-thick layers of oil on the seafloor on research cruises in September and “vast amounts” of oil on the seafloor in October. It seems reasonable to assume that if those scientists are correct, and if bottom-trawling for shrimp is occurring now in places where layers of oil are sitting on the seafloor, that oil will be disturbed by trawling.

We don’t know what the effects of that could be. It might help the oil biodegrade more quickly. But it will also repeatedly expose marine life, including commercially important species, to oil that would otherwise remain on the ocean floor.

This suggests to us that it’s very important to quickly, accurately and thoroughly survey the Gulf seafloor for residual oil, so we can let shrimpers know what areas to avoid for now.

Shrimp trawler working in mysterious substance floating in West Bay, Louisiana on October 23. Note plume behind the trawler. Source: Erika Blumenfeld via Trouthout.