AIS Ship Tracking Data Shows False Vessel Tracks Circling Above Point Reyes, Near San Francisco

Analysis from SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch shows ship tracks jumping thousands of miles from their true locations.

Bjorn Bergman works with SkyTruth and with the Global Fishing Watch research team to track vessels broadcasting false automatic identification system (AIS) locations and to investigate new sources of satellite data for vessel tracking and for detecting dark targets at sea. In this blog post, Bjorn spots an unusual pattern of false AIS broadcasts concentrated at one location, Point Reyes, northwest of San Francisco on the California coast. Why would vessels thousands of miles away be suddenly popping up in circles over Point Reyes? Could this reflect an intentional disruption of the underlying global positioning system (GPS) that AIS relies on, or is there some other explanation for this pattern?

In December 2019, SkyTruth reported on a number of locations on the Chinese coast (mostly oil terminals) where ship tracking positions from the automatic identification system (AIS)  became scrambled as soon as ships approached within a few miles of a point on shore. Importantly, we knew that this was actual disruption of the underlying global positioning system (GPS) — or more broadly the Global Navigation Satellite System — and not just a shipboard AIS malfunction. We determined this because another source of GPS data, Strava’s heat map of fitness trackers, showed the same ring pattern. A quick recent check of the data showed that this GPS manipulation is ongoing at oil terminals in four of the cities (Shanghai, Dalian, Fuzhou, and Quanzhou) where we had detected it last year. We still don’t know if this manipulation is specifically intended to mask ship traffic or if there is some other reason for disrupting GPS.

Following the findings last year on the Chinese coast, I began looking globally for any similar patterns in AIS tracking data around the world. While I haven’t found the precise pattern observed at the Chinese oil terminals outside of China, I did find a somewhat different false AIS broadcast pattern which, strangely enough, appears concentrated above Point Reyes northwest of San Francisco, California in the United States. Although the circling tracks look similar in both locations, the vessels on the Chinese coast were at most a few miles from the circling tracks, while the vessels broadcasting tracks above Point Reyes are actually thousands of miles away. So far I’ve found vessels in nine locations affected. Some of these locations are near oil terminals or where GPS disruption has been reported before, but there is no clear pattern linking all of the affected areas.  

Image 1: AIS tracks from a number of vessels have appeared circling over Point Reyes near San Francisco even though the ships can be confirmed to be thousands of miles away. False circling tracks from five vessels are shown here. AIS data courtesy of Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

The AIS positions being broadcast over Point Reyes are obviously false (some of them are over land and they show a constant speed and oval pattern we wouldn’t see with a real ship track). But how can we be sure where the ship really is? The most important indication is the location broadcast just prior to the jump to Point Reyes and then where the vessel reappears after the apparent circling finishes. The duration of the circling pattern varies, from less than an hour for one ship in the Indian Ocean, to as much as two weeks for some of the other vessels. However, besides seeing the true locations before and after the jump to Point Reyes, it’s also possible to look at where the AIS receiving satellites were while the vessels were broadcasting positions around Point Reyes.

Image 2: The colored lines show AIS tracks from five of the ships whose broadcast positions jumped suddenly to Point Reyes, California, northwest of San Francisco. The time of the tracking disruption varies from less than one hour for one vessel to about two weeks for some others. Two of the vessels (Princess Janice and Alkahfi Maryam) also have tracks appearing over land in North America. The reason for this displacement is unknown although some of the vessels are in areas where GPS disruption has been reported (Eastern Mediterranean and Sea of Azov). AIS data courtesy of Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

To get an approximate location for one vessel’s real position during the two weeks it broadcast over Point Reyes and the Western United States, SkyTruth analyst Christian Thomas and I analyzed the footprints of the satellites receiving the AIS positions. This was possible thanks to data Spire Global, Inc. provided to Global Fishing Watch. Spire’s data gives the identity of the receiving satellite with each AIS position. This allowed the Global Fishing Watch research team to access orbit information, which they used to calculate exactly the point above the surface of the earth where each satellite was when it received an AIS position and then calculate the distance from the satellite position to the ship’s broadcast AIS position. Because AIS broadcasts are only received within an approximately 5,000 kilometer (3,100 mile) diameter footprint, we know that the vessel was somewhere within this area. We can even narrow down the location further based on successive passes of AIS receiving satellites. 

Image 3: Broadcast AIS positions from Princess Janice. The track makes multiple jumps between a real location in an oil terminal on the coast of Nigeria (inset lower right) and false positions over the United States. Over two weeks in June 2019 the false track initially circles over Point Reyes northwest of San Francisco before veering over the Pacific and over the interior of the United States. More circling is seen around Salt Lake City Utah (inset upper right). AIS data courtesy of Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

This vessel, the Princess Janice, is a crew boat traveling to offshore oil installations. It broadcasts a normal track out of a Nigerian oil terminal until June 5, 2019. For the following two weeks the vessel then broadcasts a false location track circling above Point Reyes and eventually veering off above Utah (during this time the track occasionally jumped back briefly to the Nigerian oil terminal). Unlike other false AIS broadcasts we have documented, which have a constant location offset or flipped coordinate values (producing a mirror image of the actual position), these circling tracks appear to not reflect the true movements of the vessel in any way. 

When we looked at the footprint of the satellite receiving AIS positions from Princess Janice, it’s clear that the vessel remained on a stretch of the central Nigerian coast or in nearby waters in the Gulf of Guinea (see Image 4) throughout the two-week period when false locations were being broadcast. 

Image 4: Princess Janice broadcasts an AIS track over Point Reyes near San Francisco and over the Western United States from June 5 – 21, 2019 (see Image 3). Analysis of the footprints for the satellites receiving these positions demonstrates that the vessel was actually within a region on the central Nigerian coast and adjacent Gulf of Guinea. Frame 1: Location over the Earth’s surface (red dots) of satellites receiving false position messages. Frame 2: Extent of satellite footprints for AIS reception (large red circles). Frame 3: Density of satellite coverage overlap, areas of increasing density shown as Blue → Green → Yellow → White. Frame 4: Area where all satellite footprints overlap (maximum coverage) shown in white. The white shaded region on the central Nigerian coast contains the true location of the Princess Janice during the period when the vessel was broadcasting a false location track. Analysis was done in Google Earth Engine using approximate satellite footprints of 5,000 km (3,100 miles) diameter.

Both the manipulated GPS positions seen on the Chinese coast and these new examples over Point Reyes are characterized by rings of positions. The rings have similar shapes, somewhat wider east to west than north to south. However circles appearing over Point Reyes vary greatly in size and the broadcast vessel courses may be oriented clockwise or counterclockwise around the ring. All speeds are exactly 20 knots. In contrast, the rings on the Chinese vessels last year had positions that were 21 or 31 knots with the 31 knot positions always oriented counterclockwise. Critically, while we could confirm that GPS interference caused the rings of AIS positions on the Chinese coast, we don’t yet know if that is the case with the positions over Point Reyes. An alternative is that this is simply a malfunction affecting the individual ships’ AIS systems. We were able to confirm that the false circling positions over Point Reyes occur in data from all available AIS providers (Orbcomm, Spire, and ExactEarth) and in AIS positions received by both satellites and terrestrial receivers.

The list of affected vessels below (Table 1) shows that many types of vessels in different geographic locations have displayed this same pattern of AIS disruption. Some were in areas where GPS problems have been reported by others (the Eastern Mediterranean, Sea of Azov, Libyan coast); other locations are seemingly random. A number of the vessels, but not all, appear near oil terminals and are involved in supporting offshore platforms. 

TABLE 1.

Table 1: Vessels showing a pattern of false circling AIS positions. Reported locations are where circling tracks appeared (mainly at Point Reyes near San Francisco). Real locations are where the vessel was determined to be while broadcasting the false circling AIS track. AIS data courtesy of Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

The presence of three of these vessels in areas of documented GPS interference is intriguing. The cargo ship Berezovets shown below was operating in one such area in the Sea of Azov, north of the Black Sea. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the takeover of Eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists, the front line in the ongoing civil war has cut through Eastern Ukraine north of the Sea of Azov. There have also been conflicts on the water and a Russian blockade of the Kerch Strait leading north from the Black Sea.

Image 5: The Russian flagged cargo ship Berezovets transits through the Sea of Azov in June 2019 and has its AIS track jump suddenly to Point Reyes near San Francisco (inset). Incidents of documented GPS disruption occurred in March 2019 east of the Bilosarai Spit and in July 2019 in the city of Starohnatvka. AIS data courtesy of Global Fishing Watch / Orbcomm / Spire.

The Russian flagged Berezovets transited through the Kerch Strait on June 3, 2019 then headed northeast passing south of the conflict zone towards Russian ports. As the vessel enters Russian waters (location 1 in Image 5) and anchors, its June 4-8 positions broadcast by the AIS system are scrambled, some appearing scattered 20 miles from the vessel’s anchor point. The vessel track then moves east towards port before jumping 20 miles north to a point on land (2) and then jumping about 11,000 miles west to circle above Point Reyes (3). This circling continues for about 60 hours from June 11 – 14, including some irregular positions extending about 40 miles into the Pacific. As with the Princess Janice track, it’s unclear why the false track would jump to California and what accounts for the individual variations in the different tracks we see appearing at this location. On June 14, 2019 the Berezovets AIS track jumps back to the vessel’s real location, now in the Russian port of Azov (4) and can then be seen to proceed eastward up the River Don.  

The unusual disruption in the Berezovets broadcast AIS track was both preceded and followed by similar reported disruptions in GPS in the same region. On March 7, 2019 a Ukrainian military website reported that three vessels on the Sea of Azov experienced failures in their navigation systems. One of these failures occurred the day before, east of Bilosarai Spit (see Image 5). The other two reported disruptions were in the preceding month at other locations in the Sea of Azov. On July 23, 2019 according to a report from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) flying over the city of Starohnativka in Ukraine, was one of several UAVs that experienced GPS interference assessed to be likely from jamming. While not conclusive, the proximity of these other reported incidents makes it possible that the disruption seen in the Berezovets track was a result of the GPS interference known to be occuring in the area. 

Two other vessels were also in areas with documented GPS disruptions, Suha Queen II approaching the coast of Libya, and Haj Sayed I transiting from the Suez canal to Eastern Turkey. However, in searching for vessels showing the same circling pattern seen over Point Reyes, I have not yet found that multiple vessels in areas like the Sea of Azov were similarly affected. Global AIS data does show a few vessels with tracks circling over other locations. Two pilot vessels on the Chilean coast had their broadcast positions suddenly jump to circling tracks over Madrid. The Suha Queen II approaching the coast of Libya had its track jump to the Chinese city of Shanwei. The most recent vessel to appear circling over Point Reyes is the Ting Yuk, a tugboat operating in Hong Kong, which had its AIS track disrupted for a few hours at the end of March. 

So far it remains a mystery why these circling AIS tracks are appearing specifically at Point Reyes and a few other locations. It’s tempting to speculate that there might be some connection to a major U.S. Coast Guard communication station in Point Reyes which was an important historic location for developing maritime communications technology. While the Coast Guard left the area several years ago, volunteers continue to maintain at Point Reyes the only operational ship-to-shore maritime radio station. Still, it’s unclear why this location would somehow appear on AIS trackers. The fact that individual vessels in many different locations have been affected is puzzling and it’s unknown if any of these examples reflect actual disruptions of the GPS system. However some studies, such as a yearlong cruise by researchers of the German Aerospace Center which measured instances of GPS interference even during high seas transits, indicate that we may still have a great deal to learn about the true extent of global disruptions to this critical navigation system.

A Systematic Search for Bilge Dumping at Sea: 2019 in Review

What can a year’s worth of bilge dumping data tell us?

This is the first entry in a multi-part series revealing the significance of bilge dumping globally. 

Out of sight, beyond the horizon, lies a world of activity taking place in the sea. The ocean encompasses over 70% of the globe, yet most of us only see its edges from the coasts. We’ve built many of humanity’s largest and most advanced societies along coastal regions, yet because the ocean is so remote, much of what happens there remains mysterious.  

You might think of crime at sea as violence (piracy), abuse of natural resources (illegal fishing), or pollution (oil spills). However, at SkyTruth, we’ve recently focused on combating another very troubling action on the water: a serious crime known as bilge dumping. While not as well known as pollution like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, bilge dumping is a phenomenon that should not be overlooked, and yet it often is. 

Bilge dumping occurs when a vessel illegally releases untreated, oily wastewater into the ocean. This wastewater, known as bilge, collects in the ship’s lower hull and needs to be emptied regularly. Since the 1970’s an international law known as MARPOL has required that bilge water be treated to remove the oil before the bilge can be legally discharged into the sea. When a vessel circumvents treatment and dumps directly into the ocean, its wastewater creates an oily slick on the water. Radar satellite imagery captures these distinctive slicks — dark and opaque — because oil smoothes the surface of the water. This dense oily slick lingers in the water until it’s broken apart by wind and wave action, dispersing toxins and globs of oil that can harm coastal communities and marine ecosystems. Vessel operators probably commit this crime as an act of convenience: to save money or time cleaning up after themselves, imposing on others the negative consequences.

SkyTruth has observed likely bilge dumping incidents around the globe many times since 2007. But in 2019, we started seeking out these incidents more systematically. We focused our daily monitoring efforts on some of the world’s major shipping lanes and on areas where we’ve found problems in the past, cataloguing every incident of bilge dumping we found through imagery. Our intent was to better understand the scope of this recurrent problem. We noted that when we went to look for oily slicks, we always found more! Unfortunately, we began to expect to see them; they were occurring somewhere within the areas we monitored almost every day. And our monitoring only covered a small part of the ocean. 

In total, between January and December 2019, we found 163 slicks averaging 56 kilometers (almost 35 miles) in length. We almost always found bilge dumps using Sentinel-1 imagery:  high-resolution C-band Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite data made available by the European Space Agency. Although this imagery is sparse over the open ocean (see our blog post showing the coverage provided by these and other imaging satellites), it is collected regularly in coastal areas and provided coverage of several areas we considered likely to experience bilge dumping. Figure 1 documents each bilge dump incident we discovered, identified as red dots (note that because our monitoring was not covering the entire ocean, the lack of red dots in many areas on this map doesn’t necessarily mean those areas are free from bilge dumping).

 

Figure 1: Likely bilge dumping events identified by SkyTruth in 2019.

Our work suggests that bilge dumping isn’t sporadic; we repeatedly detected this illegal behavior in shipping lanes across the world, usually surrounding areas with significant energy development or active commercial ports, and often in areas with a “chokepoint” of marine traffic congestion. Bilge dumping was commonly seen in Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Guinea. Less frequently, but notably, we discovered it off the coast of Brazil, in the Mediterranean Sea, and in the Gulf of Mexico. In some cases, we have been able to identify the polluters, by correlating Automatic Identification System broadcasts (used to prevent collisions) from ships, with the time and location of oily slicks. 

In 2020, SkyTruth is working towards automating this process so we can routinely monitor much more of the ocean. We plan to use machine learning techniques to scan available satellite imagery daily, with the hopes of identifying these slicks automatically. Near real-time detection will allow authorities and the public to respond as soon as they receive notice of the slick, meaning more perpetrators (who might still be nearby, or headed into port) can be caught, and timely actions can be taken to mitigate potential environmental harm.

Figure 2. Likely bilge dump incidents identified by SkyTruth in 2019 by region.

The next segments of this series will explore bilge dumping in more depth, includingWhy should you care?” “How can this be happening?” and “What can be done about it?” We work as  space detectives —  investigating meticulously from above, revealing as much as we can down to the most pressing and actionable details. As we increase monitoring, automate the detection of offshore pollution with the use of machine learning, and raise public awareness, polluters will learn that they are being watched. We believe that more transparency leads to better behavior, better management, and better outcomes for Planet Earth. At SkyTruth, we are working to stop this illegal pollution by giving it the scrutiny it deserves. 

 

Updated 5/11/20

Christian Thomas Works to Protect his Home State of West Virginia

Christian had a choice: The Peace Corps or SkyTruth.  He chose SkyTruth.

“It was no contest,” Christian Thomas told me when I asked him about choosing between the Peace Corps and SkyTruth. Born and raised near Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Christian first met SkyTruth President John Amos at the Shepherdstown Farmer’s Market when he was a student at West Virginia University (WVU). Every Sunday morning in the summertime, Christian helped a local farmer tend a stand that sold meat and eggs to community foodies. When John learned that Christian was studying geography and environmental geoscience, he encouraged Christian to send his resume to SkyTruth.

But it took Christian a while to get around to that. First, he graduated from WVU in the spring of 2014. Then he worked as a cook at Camp Arcadia on the shores of Lake Michigan; a favorite family summer destination when he was a kid. After returning to West Virginia in the winter of 2015, he began volunteering at SkyTruth and soon became a part-time employee.

Then the offer from the Peace Corps arrived, giving him the opportunity to work in Ethiopia for two years as an Environmental Extension and Forestry Volunteer. Offer in hand, Christian asked John if SkyTruth would be interested in hiring him full time. Sure enough, SkyTruth made him a counteroffer. “[SkyTruth] was a direct application of everything I had studied,” Christian told me. And one of his first projects at SkyTruth focused on mining: “things I could see and have impact on,” he said. He jumped at the chance for a full-time position.

“One of my favorite things about SkyTruth is creating data that never existed before,” he said. He pointed to how much he values having his data used by researchers, universities, and other partners to generate scientifically credible results that can influence policy, thereby having real impact on the ground.

Christian leads SkyTruth’s work on mountaintop mining; a common practice in Appalachia in which mining companies blow up entire mountaintops to get at the coal hidden inside, then dump the soil, rock, and other material into valleys and streams below. This practice destroys native ecosystems and can poison the water supply. “West Virginia is beautiful. By not destroying the landscape there are more benefits for the state,” Christian believes.

SkyTruth’s Central Appalachia Surface Mining dataset shows where mining has occurred across 74 counties in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia since 1985. University researchers have used SkyTruth’s data to examine health impacts on nearby communities and conservation groups such as Appalachian Voices have used this data to mobilize activists. Most recently, scientists at West Virginia University published a study in the peer reviewed International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that relied on this dataset to document an association between mining and dementia-related deaths.

“There aren’t a lot of [job] opportunities for West Virginians and what there is often hurts them,” according to Christian. As coal production declines, Christian believes there are better ways for West Virginians to make a living that don’t harm people’s health. “[The beauty] is still there, but we don’t want to lose more,” he said. Some mines are massive, he pointed out — hundreds of acres. “You can see them march across the landscape in the course of a decade.” Christian has seen this firsthand by analyzing countless satellite images. One of the first steps in stopping the process, he believes, is showing how destructive these mines are.

Christian mountain biking in Oregon. Photo by Joe Milbrath.

His next step is looking at reclaimed mine sites. “You can never put the mountains back,” he said. Once mined, the Mountain State’s mountains are gone forever. But he hopes that some previously mined sites can support a native Appalachian forest again if they are reclaimed effectively. “We’re going to quantify how well the land can recover, or has recovered,” he said. This is critical information for taxpayers: Under federal law, mining companies are required to reclaim sites after they are done mining, plus set aside money in bonds to cover reclamation costs. If the mining company convinces state inspectors that recovery is sufficient, they get their bond money back. But if bonds are released for poorly reclaimed sites, communities and taxpayers can be left with denuded landscapes and large restoration bills. Christian wants to know whether real restoration is actually occurring.

His other project work at SkyTruth includes mapping offshore infrastructure in the oceans to help SkyTruth monitor ocean pollution and its partner Global Fishing Watch track fishing vessels. In November 2019, the journal Remote Sensing of Environment published his ocean infrastructure work with coauthors Brian Wong and Patrick Halprin from Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab.

When not saving his beloved West Virginia (or the world’s oceans), Christian spends time outdoors with his partner Amy Moore, whom he’s known since childhood. Amy is lead instructor at the Potomac Valley Audubon Society’s Cool Spring Preserve, and is what Christian calls “an extremely adventurous person,” big into rock climbing, cross country skiing, and white water kayaking. Christian prefers mountain biking, board games, and fly fishing – a family tradition handed down from his mother. But they both enjoy hiking at the nature preserve and, with their shared interest in conservation, make a difference every day in West Virginia.

Christian and Amy at Temperance River State Park, MN . Photo by an anonymous passerby.

Updated 12/5/19.

CONSERVATION VISION

Using Artificial Intelligence to Save the Planet

A letter from our founder, John Amos

The trends aren’t encouraging:  Industrialization, urban development, deforestation, overfishing, mining and pollution are accelerating the rate of global warming and damaging ecosystems around the world. The pace of environmental destruction has never been as great as it is today. Despite this grim assessment, I believe there’s reason to be hopeful for a brighter future.

I’m optimistic because of a new and powerful conservation opportunity: the explosion of satellite and computing technology that now allows us to see what’s happening on the ground and on the water, everywhere, in near real-time.

Up until now we’ve been inspiring people to take action by using satellites to show them what’s already happened to the environment, typically months or even years ago. But technology has evolved dramatically since I started SkyTruth, and today we can show people what’s happening right now, making it possible to take action that can minimize or even stop environmental damage before it occurs. For example, one company, Planet, now has enough satellites in orbit to collect high-resolution imagery of all of the land area on Earth every day. Other companies and governments are building and launching fleets of satellites that promise to multiply and diversify the stream of daily imagery, including radar satellites that operate night and day and can see through clouds, smoke and haze.

A few of the Earth Observation systems in orbit.
Just a few of the Earth-observation satellites in orbit. Image courtesy NASA.

The environmental monitoring potential of all this new hardware is thrilling to our team here at SkyTruth, but it also presents a major challenge: it simply isn’t practical to hire an army of skilled analysts to look at all of these images, just to identify the manageable few that contain useful information.

Artificial intelligence is the key to unlocking the conservation power of this ever-increasing torrent of imagery.

Taking advantage of the same machine-learning technology Facebook uses to detect and tag your face in a friend’s vacation photo, we are training computers to analyze satellite images and detect features of interest in the environment: a road being built in a protected area, logging encroaching on a popular recreation area, a mining operation growing beyond its permit boundary, and other landscape and habitat alterations that indicate an imminent threat to biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, and human health.  By applying this intelligence to daily satellite imagery, we can make it possible to detect changes happening in the environment in near real-time. Then we can immediately alert anyone who wants to know about it, so they can take action if warranted: to investigate, to document, to intervene.

We call this program Conservation Vision.

And by leveraging our unique ability to connect technology and data providers, world-class researchers and high-impact conservation partners, we’re starting to catalyze action and policy success on the ground.

We’re motivated to build this approach to make environmental information available to people who are ready and able to take action. We’ve demonstrated our ability to do this through our partnership with Google and Oceana with the launch and rapid growth of Global Fishing Watch, and we’re already getting positive results automating the detection of fracking sites around the world. We have the technology. We have the expertise. We have the track record of innovation for conservation. And we’ve already begun the work.

Stay tuned for more updates and insights on how you can be part of this cutting-edge tool for conservation. 

Tracking the Chinese Squid Fleet in the South Pacific – Part 2: A City on the High Seas

 

Nighttime surveillance of the squid fleet from the bridge of the Brigitte Bardot. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Continued from Part 1: Voyage to the Galapagos. As the Brigitte Bardot steamed west from the Galapagos we considered the sheer number of people we could expect to encounter when we reached this densely clustered fishing fleet 700 miles out to sea. The scale of fishing on the high seas has always been largely invisible to the seafood consuming public but our satellite tracking sources indicated an operation of truly remarkable size. From Automatic Identification System (AIS) data and radar we knew we were approaching a fleet of around 300 ships. These would be not only fishing vessels but a whole network of support vessels for refueling and transshipping catch from the fleet, as well as providing for an estimated 6,000 crewmen who would be at sea for several months at a time. On the high seas in areas beyond national jurisdiction regulations are few and what oversight of fishing operations exists depends on Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs). These RFMOs are established by international treaties to monitor and regulate fishing of particular species, although only some countries are signatories and there is a limited capacity for monitoring vast areas of open ocean. The region of the Eastern Pacific to which we were headed falls at the northern end of the area regulated by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO). The SPRFMO regulates fishing of non-tuna species and publishes a list of vessels authorized to fish in the area. However, beyond requiring countries to register their vessels and collecting the catch data they submit, no limits are set on squid catches. We had our last sight of San Lorenzo Island the evening of September 19th and as we headed west into the open Pacific we expected a return of the rough weather we had seen on the voyage out. But by the next morning the seas were strangely still with fog obscuring our view much distance from the vessel. I sat below in the galley rechecking the latest set of AIS transmissions from the fleet against the SPRFMO’s authorization list. How a vessel is identified in the AIS system depends entirely on the information the vessel’s captain decides to input into his transmitter. Some operators conscientiously broadcast their full vessel name, callsign, International Maritime Organization (IMO) number, and flag. Others broadcast incomplete or outdated information via AIS and more than a few vessels give no identification at all or broadcast names that appear scrambled or don’t identify the vessel (“._NGDAYANG29” and “PS1” for instance). As a result, I had the challenge of trying to decipher as many of these vessel identifications as possible to determine if they were authorized to fish in the area.

SkyTruth Analyst Bjorn Bergman checking satellite AIS data for tracking the squid fleet. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

In the afternoon I went up to the wheelhouse to stand watch. We continued through the fog, the Brigitte Bardot barely rocking on the calm seas. Jack, the Brigitte Bardot’s drone pilot taking a break from an action-packed stint on Sea Shepherd’s Milagro campaign in Mexico, explained the ship’s radar to me. We were limited in range by the relatively low height of the mast but our radar system had some useful options for locking and tracking targets and with a few adjustments we could even see the edge of an advancing rain front. But when Chris, the Brigitte Bardot‘s captain, joined us a few hours later there were still no blips on the radar screen. For the moment we appeared to have this vast stretch of the Pacific entirely to ourselves.

Alex and Stefan on watch on the bridge of the Brigitte Bardot. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Despite the lack of vessels in the vicinity we expected to soon be reaching the edge of a huge fishing fleet and we needed to settle on a strategy. If there was illegal activity we would need to collect evidence before news of our arrival spread by radio through the fleet. I shared a list of potential targets with Chris and Jack. Unsatisfyingly all were ambiguous cases, vessels that didn’t give enough information in their AIS broadcasts for us to determine if they were SPRFMO authorized. We’d initially thought we’d have some clearly identified vessels that weren’t authorized to fish and had planned to arrive after nightfall (when squid fishing occurs) and collect evidence with a night vision camera. However with only ambiguous unidentified vessels as targets it made sense to arrive at the fleet during daylight hours when it would still be possible to easily read names and numbers painted on the vessel hull. Chris called up the ship’s engineer Stefan. We could speed up to arrive at the fleet with a few hours of daylight but as Stefan explained this would be a trade-off with the extra fuel we burned ultimately limiting the ship’s range for this operation. After a brief discussion Stefan turned up the RPM on the Brigitte Bardot’s twin engines. The calm weather continued through the next day as we sped west. Eloy, a Peruvian researcher who was finishing his thesis on tracking this fleet, sat out on deck reading through journal articles. If we had had any doubt that we were in squid fishing grounds this would have been dispelled by the dozens of squid which somehow made it onto the deck every night, when as Eloy explained, they rose to the surface to feed and possibly were attracted to the lights on the Brigitte Bardot. In fact this attraction to light is a critical part of squid fishing operations with the industrial fleet deploying lights on a massive scale to lure the squid in. With the Brigitte Bardot’s crew gathered in the wheelhouse later in the afternoon there was a building sense of anticipation. The first vessel had appeared on the radar to the west an hour before and was quickly joined by half a dozen others. I checked these against satellite AIS, doing my best to guide the Brigitte Bardot towards a squid vessel broadcasting only the callsign BZZ5K, a callsign not registered to any vessel authorized to take squid. As we approached this first target Jack and Stefan passed back and forth a ridiculously large pair of pair of binoculars. Then on the port side the first vessel came into view.

Chris and Jack survey the approaching fleet from the Brigitte Bardot’s bridge. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Rust and soot on the hull seemed to obscure any identifying markings. Squid jigging gear projected out from either side below strings of giant bare bulbs hanging like oversized Christmas tree lights. A Chinese flag flew above the wheelhouse and at the stern of the vessel what appeared to be a tattered black sail. But on board all was quiet with a sea anchor keeping the vessel in place as the crew apparently waited below for the onset of nighttime fishing operations. This vessel was broadcasting AIS and we could faintly make out its name, which was on the SPRFMO authorization list, so we continued past it toward our target.

The Chinese flagged squid vessel Hai Yang 5. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Reaching this first target, broadcasting callsign BZZ5K, was immediately anticlimactic. We could see a name and different callsign clearly painted on the hull, Hua Ying 819 with callsign BZV9K, an authorized vessel. The reason for the incorrect callsign on AIS was unclear but entirely legal since there are no regulations mandating correct identification on AIS. This is a frustrating situation for advocates of fisheries transparency since AIS is usually the only source of information the public has for tracking fleets out at sea. A simple requirement from flag states and authorities like the SPRFMO that vessels broadcasting AIS identify themselves correctly and broadcast continuously while operating, would dramatically improve the public’s ability to reliably monitor fleets on the high seas which are extracting a common global resource. We sped on hoping to check a few more target vessels before dark. The fleet was now all around us, dozens of mostly still vessels extending out to the edge of radar reception. We’d expected that the arrival of the Brigitte Bardot would set off a flurry of chatter on the radio but the fleet was strangely silent as we set the radio to scan for broadcasts. We passed close to some vessels comparing their broadcast ID to identification painted on the hull and checking their authorization on the SPRFMO list. Once we noticed a few flashes of light through our wheelhouse’s starboard windows. Had someone tried to signal us with a mirror? Glancing back all seemed still on the boat we had passed. We had soon spent the few hours of daylight we had gained by speeding westward. Though we’d managed to check off a number of the vessels with ambiguous AIS IDs on my target list we were finding that they all checked out once we were able to get identification from the vessel’s hull. As the sun sank below the horizon we halted to reassess the situation. So far just tracking down boats with bad AIS identification was not turning up any illegal activity. How about identifying vessels with no AIS broadcast at all? Consulting with Chris we decided to make a loose grid through the fleet checking the AIS broadcast of each boat as we approached. The Brigitte Bardot now proceeded slowly to conserve fuel as we prepared to survey through the night. Suddenly out of the darkness a towering intense white light showed on the horizon. Soon it was followed by others all around us, mostly white but some an iridescent green and others with dimmer yellow light. Looking out from the wheelhouse we seemed no longer to be on the open ocean but in the edge of some great coastal metropolis.

With their powerful fishing lights on the squid fleet lights up the horizon all around the Brigitte Bardot. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

The ships had now come alive. Squinting against the blinding lights we could see crewmen lined up behind the protruding jigging gear on either side of the vessel. Checking the AIS broadcasts of each vessel we were frustrated by what seemed to be severely limited reception range. Often we had to approach within a mile or two of a vessel before they appeared on our navigation plotter when it ought to have been possible to pick up vessels even 10 or 20 miles out. Around midnight when we judged the fishing operation to be well underway we roused Jack from below. It was time to take a closer look at what was actually happening on board these vessels.

Chinese squid boat lights up the surrounding water attracting squid to the baited lines. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

Jack launched the drone, a phantom 4 quadcopter, from the bow of the Brigitte Bardot then stared intently at his control screen as he steered the drone in towards the fishing vessel. Navigating at night guided by only the vessel’s powerful fishing lights Jack brought the drone close over the deck avoiding the mast and cables strung high above the swaying vessel. Crewmen manned baited lines extending out from the ship in all directions. A few stopped and waved at the drone as it passed overhead. At one point the foreman on deck made an exasperated shooing motion with both hands. This fleet was on record for catching exclusively squid. Could something else be going on board? Large quantities of shark reached the coast of South America, mostly from longliners, with fins then shipped back to markets in China. Were sharks also caught on these vessels? Carefully examining the footage Jack would later notice a dozen fins protruding from the water around where the squid lines reached the ocean surface. But were these sharks being caught — or just hanging out where they might get some bait? The mechanics of landing a shark with the gear being used seemed difficult and on the vessels we could observe no sharks were seen on deck or on the fishing lines. Drone footage of a nighttime fishing operation by a Chinese squid jigger. Video by Jack Hutton/ Sea Shepherd With the drone back on board we continued a slow survey through the fleet. Checking about 50 ships just one vessel we approached appeared not to be broadcasting AIS and all we identified had a valid authorization to fish. Eloy noted a clear distinction between vessels with strings of blinding LED lights (the total luminosity of these vessels is said to rival European soccer stadiums) and boats with somewhat dimmer yellow incandescent bulbs. We identified a number of vessels in these two categories so we could check later if this distinction also appeared in our data from NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). Hearing from Eloy that the satellite with the VIIRS instrument (NASA’s Soumi NPP) would be passing overhead at about 1:30 am, we also noted the positions of nearby vessels from the ship’s radar at precisely that time to compare with the vessel locations NOAA derived from the satellite’s imagery. I headed down for some sleep soon afterwards leaving the bridge in the hands of Simon, a professional photographer and veteran of Sea Shepherd’s Antarctic missions.

The glow of the Chinese squid fleet lights up the sky ahead of the Brigitte Bardot. Photo by Simon Ager/ Sea Shepherd

After getting a few inadequate hours of sleep I scrambled back up to the wheelhouse to look out at the fleet, now mostly quiet in the clear morning light. Jack and Chris were eager to show video captured the night before and as we looked at the latest satellite AIS data we could see one of the squid vessels alongside a reefer (refrigerated cargo ship). Was catch being transshipped just a few miles away? Today we would have a rare chance to document this activity and face a critical choice for continuing our investigation of fishing on the high seas. To be be continued…