Taking the “Secret” out of Rendezvous at Sea

In January, SkyTruth reported on our work with DigitalGlobe to identify and photograph refrigerated cargo vessels (reefers) in the Western Indian Ocean. The goal was to capture high-resolution images of vessels that our analyst had painstakingly targeted for suspicious behavior by monitoring and analyzing their movements based on signals from their Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts. We targeted reefers because they are key to transshipment—they receive catch transferred from multiple fishing vessels and carry it to port. The practice, called transshipment, saves fishing vessels time and fuel, but it is illegal in many cases because it can enable illegally caught fish to be mixed with legal catch.

The images DigitalGlobe acquired in November revealed multiple instances of reefers in rendezvous with other vessels, including fishing vessels. Now, in collaboration with Global Fishing Watch, SkyTruth data scientists have made the job of targeting reefers much easier. Together, the team has developed an artificial intelligence system capable of identifying and tracking transshipments around the world by following reefers and classifying their movements. An analysis of 21 billion AIS signals from ships at sea has created the first-ever global map of transshipment.

Today, SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch are publishing those results in a new report: The Global View of Transshipment: Preliminary Findings. According to our analysis, from 2012 through 2016, there were more than 86,490 potential transshipments in which reefers exhibited the slow movements indicative of transshipment. Of those, 5,065 were likely transshipments because they included a rendezvous with an AIS-broadcasting fishing vessel — meaning they traveled at a specified slow speed in close proximity to one another for a certain length of time that indicated a likely transshipment.

This image of the reefer Hai Feng 648 with an unidentified fishing vessel off the coast of Argentina is just one of the images acquired on Nov 30, 2016 in collaboration with DigitalGlobe. (DigitalGlobe © 2017)

Like most activity that occurs on the ocean, transshipment has been hidden from the world. This report shines a new light over the horizon, revealing the extent and magnitude of transshipment. Based on the data generated by SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch during this project, our partners at Oceana are publishing a complementary report today that highlights the global scale of transshipment and its complicity in illegal fishing and human rights abuses. The report identifies hotspots of transshipment and the ports that reefers visit, exposing associations between transshipment and illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activity.

The refrigerated cargo vessel (reefer) Leelawadee seen on November 30, 2016 with two unidentified likely fishing vessels tied alongside was featured in our post on January 16. (DigitalGlobe © 2017)

Oceana’s report calls for the banning of transshipment at sea, expanded mandates for unique identifiers and vessel tracking for fishing vessels. Currently AIS is not required on all vessels, and fishing vessels engaged in illegal activity are known to turn off their AIS when they don’t want to be seen. Having access to high-resolution satellite imagery is a game-changer when it comes to illuminating these rendezvous, especially when only one of the vessels is broadcasting AIS. That’s why we are thrilled to be working with the folks at DigitalGlobe, who are donating time and imagery from their powerful WorldView satellites to demonstrate that we can systematically shine a spotlight on these transshipment events at sea. In partnering with SkyTruth, DigitalGlobe shows how corporations and nonprofits can join together to solve some of the world’s thorniest problems.


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.

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 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.]

Marking 50 Years of Landsat

It’s hard for us to care about problems we can’t see.

It’s hard for us to manage problems we can’t measure.

That’s why I started SkyTruth – to make environmental changes visible to everyone.

And that’s why I was so moved by a recent encounter. Last week, after the Our Ocean conference had wrapped up, I found myself having dinner in the lovely home of a new friend of SkyTruth. Our little party included Tom Udall, senator from New Mexico.   When he heard about SkyTruth, he asked me if we used Landsat images.  I told him I thought the Landsat satellite program was one of NASA’s most important success stories; and that we use Landsat images on a daily basis at SkyTruth for environmental monitoring.

His eyes lit up and he told me something I hadn’t realized: his father, Stewart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior, was one of the key drivers in the origin story of the Landsat program. In the mid-1960s the head of the US Geological Survey, William Pecora, convinced Secretary Udall that the nation should launch a fleet of earth-observing satellites. In 1966, Udall announced the program – a politically savvy move that prompted NASA to get involved and take charge of the design, construction, launch and operation of the satellites.  In late 1971, the first Landsat satellite was launched, ushering in the era of space-based remote sensing that is thriving today.  Landsat satellites have been operating continuously since Landsat-1, with Landsat-7 and Landsat-8 currently carrying the torch.

More than 4 million Landsat images of the earth have been collected, with hundreds of new images added to that tremendous archive every day.  This provides a priceless dataset for measuring – and showing – how landscapes and ecosystems have changed over the past 45 years, a time of skyrocketing population growth and human-caused disruption of interconnected natural processes and systems that we’re racing to fully understand.  Landsat imagery provides a critical tool for investigating and understanding the many ways we’re impacting our own life support systems.

Just a few examples:

  • The outstanding Global Forest Watch program, a partnership of World Resources Institute and Google, powered by analytical algorithms developed at the University of Maryland, uses Landsat to make a complete global map of forest cover every year. Users can sign up to get automatic alerts whenever a deforestation event is detected in their area of interest. Companies that use wood products are pledging to get illegal logging out of their supply chains, and are using Global Forest Watch to verify their progress. Governments are monitoring logging concessions and protected areas to ensure companies are complying with regulations. This project has provided plenty of inspiration for our own Global Fishing Watch project with Oceana and Google.
  • Our project — in partnership with Appalachian Voices, Duke University, and Google — to map the “footprint” of mountaintop removal mining for coal in Appalachia is systematically analyzing Landsat images to generate a geospatial database of mining-disrupted land. We’re taking advantage of the fact that Google is hosting the entire archive of Landsat images and is giving us free access to this massive cloud storage through a powerful cloud-computing tool called Earth Engine. This data has already resulted in more than half a dozen peer-reviewed scientific studies quantifying the human health and environmental consequences of mountaintop mining, and has moved the policy needle in a major way.  It’s our hope that the annually updated map will serve as a focal point for envisioning what we want Appalachia to look like in the future, and tool for planning how we’re going to get there from here.
  • TIMElapse, a collaboration between TIME and Google, lets you see 30 years of change – everywhere on the planet – at the click of a mouse. Give it a try, and be amazed. And in some cases, alarmed.

September 21 marked the 50th anniversary of Stewart Udall’s announcement that launched the Landsat program.  His son Tom was guest of honor, and should be very proud of this piece of his father’s impressive legacy.  We certainly are grateful for his vision: “a program aimed at gathering facts about the natural resources of the earth from earth-orbiting satellites.”  This is an example of something government can do well: investing in infrastructure that broadly benefits society, and provides a stable platform for the development of businesses and economic activity.  Landsat is the data equivalent of the interstate highway system, a public good that has spawned a thriving for-profit remote sensing industry in the US and beyond.

We’re looking forward to the uninterrupted continuation of the Landsat program and (at least) another 50 years of systematic Earth observation, because it’s needed now more than ever.

Advancing the Science and Technology of “Sky Truthing”: SkyTruth in the scientific literature

It has been almost 15 years since we first launched SkyTruth with the belief that sharing images of habitat loss and environmental change would not only contribute to public awareness of the human footprint on our earth, but would become a valuable resource for scientific research and discussion. As a scientist who comes from a family of scientists, SkyTruth President John Amos is driven by a deep-rooted interest in seeking evidence-based truth. Whether that evidence unveils nefarious behavior by commercial interests and colluding government entities, or debunks myths of over-eager watchdogs crying wolf, our job is to put it out there for public scrutiny.

So, it is immensely gratifying when our work is used to advance scientific knowledge of the health and environmental ramifications of human activity. Our data and analysis has contributed to a variety of studies and been cited in numerous research papers on issues ranging from mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, offshore oil spills, the effects of fracking and commercial fisheries.

“I’m incredibly proud that what we produce is helping scientists do meaningful work,” says John, “and that it’s resulted in the kind of impact it has and the kind of outcomes we’ve seen.”

Here’s a sampling of some of the scientific and academic publications to which our work has contributed.


Through the Global Fishing Watch Research program, our analysts work directly with world renowned experts and academic researchers, applying our data to some of the most pressing issues facing global fishing and ocean sustainability.

Among the first fruits of those partnerships is the article “Ending Hide and Seek in the Oceans” published in Science magazine in April, 2016. Co-authored by Doug McCauley of University of California, Santa Barbara, our chief technology officer, Paul Woods, our data analyst Bjorn Bergman and other collaborators.

Two months later, that article was cited in a paper published in PLoS ONE titled “Improving Fishing Pattern Detection from Satellite AIS Using Data Mining and Machine Learning.” Authored by our research partners from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Kristina Boerder, Boris Worm and colleagues, the paper outlines work that is directly contributing to and being built up by our Global Fishing Watch computer models.


Having been responsible for revealing the extent of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, SkyTruth’s analysis of the volume of the slick and the daily rate of flow has made its way into the general scientific literature on analysis of the spill and its impacts.

Our direct contributions to the literature includes an article co-authored by SkyTruth president John Amos along with Elliot Norse, president of Marine Conservation Biology International. Titled “Impacts, Perception, and Policy Implications of the BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil and Gas Disaster,” the article was published in the November 2010 issue of Environmental Law Reporter’s News & Analysis.

That article was later adapted into the article “Deepwater Horizon Revisited” and published in Earth Imaging Journal.

Examples of outside research papers that included our data and analysis include:

A paper by Ian MacDonald of Florida State University in the journal Significance titled Deepwater Disaster: how the oil spill estimates got it wrong.”

A paper in the January 2013 issue of the journal Sustainable Engineering authored by researcher Konstantin A. Korotenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences P.P.Shirshov Institute of Oceanology and his colleagues. The paper titled “Modeling 3-D Transport and Dispersal of Oil Plume Released During BP/Horizon Accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010included a cumulative slick footprint of the spill created by overlaying all of the oil slicks mapped by SkyTruth on satellite images taken between April 25 and July 16, 2010.

Shortly after the BP disaster, in April of 2011, we led the formation of The Gulf Monitoring Consortium, an alliance of non-profits that collects, analyzes and publishes images and other information to investigate and expose pollution incidents that occur in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Coast region.

We released a summary of our findings over the first six months, Report on Activities from April 2011 to October 2011, that documented under reporting and lack of reporting of oil spill by responsible parties and inconsistencies in collection and publication of oil spill reports by National Response Center.

That report has been cited in numerous research papers including, most recently, an article in the January 16 issue of the journal Nature authored by Louisiana State University department of entomology researcher Claudia Husseneder and colleagues titled “Impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill on Population Size And Genetic Structure of Horse Flies in Louisiana Marshes.”

In August 2013, we issued another report titled Lessons from Hurricane Isaac: Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Facilities still not Storm Ready.


Independent academics have used SkyTruth’s mountaintop removal (MTR) dataset to produce groundbreaking studies that have fundamentally changed the debate about the societal costs and benefits of MTR. We are especially gratified by the contribution our work has made in this arena.

In 2013, John co-authored a paper in the Journal BioScience titled “The overlooked terrestrial impacts of mountaintop mining.”

Among work by outside researchers, two studies in particular were cited by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in their decision to overturn a permit that had been issued by the Army Corps of Engineers to expand the Spruce #1 mine in Logan County, WV. It is only the second time in EPA’s history that they have exercised this authority under the Clean Water Act.

The studies cited are:

How Many Mountains Can We Mine?” published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The research by Dr. Emily Bernhardt, a biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, provided the first conclusive evidence of a direct link between mountaintop removal mining to downstream water pollution and related environmental destruction.

The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996–2003” in the journal Environmental Science. Authors Melissa Ahern a health economist at Washington State University, Michael Hendryx an epidemiologist at West Virginia University, and their colleagues, found significantly higher birth defects in communities near MTR operations.

In addition, our MTR analysis has been used in many other studies including:

Michael Hendryx and Kestrel Innes-Wimsatt of West Virginia University published study in the Journal Ecophsycology titled “Increased Risk of Depression for People Living in Coal Mining Areas of Central Appalachia.”

Researchers at EPA, USGS, WVU and SkyTruth authored a study published in BioOne titled “The Overlooked Terrestrial Impacts of Mountaintop Mining,” which calculated cumulative loss of topographic complexity, forests, soil, carbon sequestration capacity, biodiversity, and human health due to MTR.

Nicholas Zegre and Andrew Miller at West Virginia University authored a paper aggregating existing knowledge on the hydrological implications of MTR mining and highlighting areas for future. The paper, titled “Mountaintop Removal Mining and Catchment Hydrology,” was published in the journal Water.

Researchers Nathaniel “Than” Hitt and Douglas Chambers from USGS conducted a study to determine the impact of MTR mining on fish populations and biodiversity downstream from mining sites at select watersheds in southern West Virginia. Their paper, “Temporal changes in taxonomic and functional diversity of fish assemblages downstream from mountaintop mining” was published in the journal Freshwater Science.


A paper in the December 2013 issue of the journal Endocrinology, used our tabulation and mapping of Colorado Oil and Gas Commission data on wells active as of June 2008. The paper by Christopher D. Kassotis of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health and Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, and colleagues is titled “Estrogen and androgen receptor activities of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and surface and ground water in a drilling-dense region.”

Other recent works that have cited our fracking data or analysis include the following two books by CRC Press:

Hydraulic Fracturing Impacts and Technology published June 2015. Authored by Venki Uddameri, Professor and director of water resources Center at Texas Tech University and colleagues.

Wastewater and Shale Formation Development: Risks, Mitigation, and Regulation published June 24, 2015. Authored by Sheila Olmstead, associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

In January 2016, our work on fracking and mountaintop removal was referenced multiple times in a chapter of the book Risk Analysis of Natural Hazards: Interdisciplinary Challenges and Integrated Solutions. Published by Springer, the book is the 19th volume in the series Risk, Governance and Society, begun in 1986 titled.