Mystery Moves: What is the Chinese Squid Fleet Doing in the Pacific?

Over the past couple of months, SkyTruth analyst Bjorn Bergman has been watching some interesting activity by the Chinese fishing fleet in the Pacific. A large Chinese flagged squid-fishing fleet had been fishing at the boundary of Peru’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) throughout the summer and fall of 2016. Then, near the middle of December, many of them suddenly began migrating some 3,000 miles to the northwest.

At their new location, around 118 degrees West longitude and just north of the equator, they met up with another group of Chinese-flagged vessels. These vessels had just moved to this remote part of the Pacific about a week or two earlier. Some arrived from China and Indonesia, and some came directly from fishing just outside the Japanese EEZ.

This screen shot from the Global Fishing Watch map shows the movement of 55 Chinese flagged vessels from early November 2016 through February 5, 2017. You can see vessels moving to a single location around 118 degrees West longitude from the western Pacific (red tracks), and from the squid fishing grounds just outside the Peru EEZ (blue tracks). Some vessels off the Peru EEZ also moved south to Argentina. You will find a link to see these tracks on the live map at the bottom of this post.

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

When fishing for squid, fishers use powerful lights to attract the animals to the surface for an easy catch. This nighttime VIIRS imagery from the Suomi-NPP satellite, taken on January 29, 2017, shows the lights of Chinese squid fishing vessels off of Peru, and at the new location in the middle of the Pacific.

The same pattern is seen using satellite signals from fishing vessels.

This the Global Fishing Watch heat map shows the AIS signals from fishing vessels from January 9 to February 2, 2017. With one fishing track defined in blue, we can see the path of the Chinese squid fleet moving from just outside the Peru EEZ to a location on the high seas.

This Global Fishing Watch heat map shows the AIS signals from fishing vessels from January 9 to February 2, 2017. With one fishing track defined in blue, we can see the path of the Chinese squid fleet moving from just outside the Peru EEZ to a location on the high seas.

The new location of these vessels is not known for squid. It is also an unlikely habitat as squid usually live near continental shelves and canyons where there are steep changes in water depth. It’s unclear what the vessels are fishing for now, but the sudden move from the eastern Pacific may be a reflection of a dwindling catch.

Usually Chinese flagged squid fishers operating around South America concentrate off of Peru in the Pacific and Argentina in the Atlantic Ocean. For the past few years, some squid-fishing fleets have seen their catch decline in both regions.  Undercurrent News reports that some Taiwanese boat captains abandoned squid altogether because of low catch. They are now targeting Pacific saury (mackerel pike), which is found in the north Pacific.

Perhaps the Chinese fleet around South America has also given up on catching squid. We noted that when many of the Chinese vessels off Peru began moving to the northwest, some of them turned south, headed for Argentina, but according to Undercurrent, Chinese captains who moved to Argentina said they wish they had stayed in Peru because the catch was so bad.

The fleet that stayed in Peru may not have fared much better. By February 7, only three Chinese squid-fishing vessels remained in that location. Why so many have moved some 3,000 km to the northwest, and what they’re fishing for now remains a mystery to us. Whatever it is, it’s also drawn a crowd of Chinese vessels from the western Pacific. We checked in with the Southern Pacific Regional Management Organization that has jurisdiction over the area, and even they are not sure what the sudden change in location by this fleet means. 

We would be very interested to hear from anyone who can help explain it.

Click here to see these vessels on the Global Fishing Watch Map where you can manipulate the time frame, zoom in, add vessels. Note: you will need to be registered to access the map (it’s free). If you are already a registered user, and the map link isn’t working, please log in then copy the link into your browser. http://globalfishingwatch.org/map/workspace/udw-627b8ae0-02f3-4fd1-b080-119462b69c8c 

Satellites Leave No Place to Hide for Rogue Thai Fishing Fleet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Time Evidence Leads Government of Belize to Reverse Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

Track of the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize

Track of the Northern Explorer off the coast of Belize

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

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

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

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

 

[Updated] Fishing Fleet at MH370 Search Site May Have Moved North

Vessels in the Fu Yuan Yu fleet previously seen near the MH370 search site suddenly disappeared from our monitoring system last week as the entire fleet and associated fishing gear stopped broadcasting AIS. One of the vessels has now reappeared, the Fu Yuan Yu 076 is giving a current location in the Bay of Bengal near India. However looking at the vessel’s track over the past three months there is good reason to be skeptical. While the vessel showed a likely fishing track they appeared in a very unlikely location, the mountains of Tibet.

What we see is in fact a latitude reversal where a vessel’s position in the Southern Hemisphere is flipped over the Equator to appear in the Northern Hemisphere. This is one of a number of patterns of false AIS locations we have documented. We’re not sure if these simply result from errors in transmission or if the vessel operator intends to make his vessel difficult to track. Fortunately we have developed some tools to pick these false locations out of our data and correct them. The reappearance today of what is likely a beacon attached to the vessel’s fishing gear (identifying as Fu Yuan Yu 076 08) with a mirror track in the Southern Hemisphere is very strong evidence that this is also the true location of the parent fishing vessel.

The vessel’s latest positions show them moving on an irregular course at slow speed so it’s possible that they have resumed fishing at this new location. Though we can’t see any of the other vessels in the Fu Yuan Yu fleet there is a good chance they are nearby. We’ll see if any of them reappear in the next few days.

Fu Yuan Yu 76 and gear 3-2-16
Here are seen two AIS tracks over the past 3 months. The fishing vessel Fu Yuan Yu 076 broadcasting an impossible location on land in the Northern Hemisphere and the associated Fu Yuan Yu 076 08 (likely fishing gear) mirroring the track but in the Southern Hemisphere. The track of the Fu Yuan Yu 076 08 confirms our suspicion that the true location of the parent vessel can be found by reversing the latitude of their broadcast positions. While none of the other vessels in the fleet can be located it may be that the group has moved north to this new location.  

 

 

A Message From Elliott

 

My friend and one of SkyTruth’s original board members, Dr. Elliott Norse, is stepping off our Board of Directors after 14 years of tirelessly enthusiastic service.  An internationally acclaimed forest ecologist and marine biologist who founded and ran the Marine Conservation Institute, Elliott has more accomplishments than I can list, but among them: he was an early proponent of the concept of biodiversity and shaped the field of marine conservation biology in its formative years; and he coined the name SkyTruth. So, in a very literal way, we owe our identity to him.

And in a era where ecopragmatism is on the upswing, and tactical compromises and tradeoffs are redefining environmentalism, Elliott has always been an ardent ecospiritualist:  a guiding star to keep us inspired to work on behalf of conservation, not just because it’s something that benefits humankind, but because it’s the right thing, the moral thing, to do.

We’ve benefited greatly from his wit and wisdom, his generosity and leadership.  I know Elliott is still just a phone call away, and we’ll be able to drop in and get his thoughts when we’re wrestling with decisions large and small, and in need of some perspective.  I can’t complain: we’ve had a good run with Elliott, and because of Elliott, and for that I am deeply grateful.

Thank you Elliott, from your friend, admirer and colleague,

John Amos
President

With Elliott’s permission, I’d like to share his message to our Board:

Dear SkyTruth boardies,

There are 2 kinds of actors: those who don’t know when to get off the stage and those who do.

Timing is everything.  Now that SkyTruth is rapidly ascending and I see how smart and devoted our boardies are to John’s vision, SkyTruth’s methods and our crucial conservation mission, it is my sad but heartfelt pleasure to tell you that I am resigning from SkyTruth’s Board of Directors effective 12/31/15, when I am also resigning my day job at Marine Conservation Institute.

I’ve had the pleasure and honor of knowing John since 1985 or so.  30 years.  And I’ve seen how he’s used his talent—which in the for-profit world would have made him rich—to make our world a better place.

John has great vision, a great heart, a great presence as a speaker and very good luck when it comes to choosing the people around him.  You make him even better at what he does so brilliantly.

As you all know, how humans relate to our planet is absolutely key to the complex systems of business, society, politics and ecology.  It’s not easy to understand the behavior of complex systems because we don’t see all that they do until they do it.  But one thing we know about complex systems is that they tend to resist change until they pass an inflection point (or tipping point, as people now see it, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell), the moment when systems reorganize.  Nonlinearity is a defining characteristic of complex systems.  And my sense is that SkyTruth is positioned to become a much more important part of the most important of global conversations: the one about what to do to our blue, white, green and brown planet, on which we and all our progeny live.

I’ve devoted years to seeing SkyTruth succeed, and I now want to watch it ascend to a new level of influence over what people are doing to the Earth and one another.  SkyTruth is about seeing and depicting the environmental truths—local, regional, national and global—on land, freshwaters and the sea.  By taking a satellite’s view (backing off to take in the greater context), SkyTruth provides the iconic views and analyses of big things that are happening on our planet, from the structural failure of coal ash dams and the regulatory failure of mine reclamation to the hemorrhaging of oil leaks and the metastasis of illegal fishing far out at sea.  And with more than a billion people armed with phones that can photograph time-stamped geolocated human activities, SkyTruth has the gravitas and technological savvy to interpret these iconic images for a worldwide network of individual citizens, advocacy organizations and government agencies.  The stars are aligning for SkyTruth’s ascent into a higher orbit, as they are for Marine Conservation Institute.  These outstanding nonprofits deserve to have younger, fresher minds to help our staffs do great things for this truly unique real estate we inhabit.  After working on small, not-so-small and really big things for well over a decade, SkyTruth has shown special capacity to see and understand how things happen and affect nature and people.

John, Paul and their team have done a brilliant job.  Their successes are not one-offs; SkyTruth has all the elements needed to reach a higher orbit.

I think our board needs a few scientists who have exceptional vision, strong pro-Earth ethics and the ability to integrate nature and people.  I think we need more contacts in both the nonprofit environmental advocacy community and the for-profit world of business (the government people who see your products will be compelled to flock to you).  And SkyTruth needs lots more money to succeed, as we all want it to.  So this is the time for SkyTruth’s strategic revisioning and rebooting, keeping our other boardies but also upgrading the geographical ecology position(s) and adding formal economics and social marketing savvy, giving us both substantive credibility and the ability to move lots more people now, while there’s still a brief window of time to succeed.

Worry not for me.  I’ve spent more than 37 years fighting to save the Earth I love.  Now I’m ready to take better care of my health and my loved ones, to grow my vegies, to watch my amazing backyard birds, to read, to think and do whatever life brings me.  If I’ve done good things for this organization and Marine Conservation Institute, I feel it’s the right time to quit while I still have some relevance, not to wait until I’m no longer good enough to play a game this important.  I’m exiting my way, and it feels really good.

Knowing that our baby is in very good hands allows me to leave the stage now.  I’m not going to disappear, so if John, Paul or any of you needs to talk, I’ll still be at this email and phone number.  If I don’t answer, please know it’s not because I’m hunting for funding or meeting with the most powerful people who’ll give me an audience; it’s because I’m working out, watching hummingbirds feed from flowers I’ve planted specifically for them, caring for my beautiful grandchildren (they don’t have any of my genes!), traveling with my wonderful wife of 23 years, reading a novel or doing something else that’s physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually rewarding.  Don’t worry about me.  Just do really good things for SkyTruth and I’ll watch your progress and celebrate.

Thank you all for the great privilege of working with you.

Peace and love for you and for the Earth,

Elliott

Map of Active Wellpads in Pennsylvania: 2005-2013

Citizen-scientist analysis of aerial survey imagery from 2013, validated by SkyTruth, found 1,615 new wellpads in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale (and related Devonian shales). This latest result of our ongoing FrackFinder projects brings the total to 2,724 active industrial operations that we have identified spread across the fields and forests of Pennsylvania. These numbers are not to be confused with rig counts (which maxed out at 116 in 2011 and 2012) or the total number of shale wells drilled in William Penn’s woods (over 7,788). 

Because drilling rigs move around and operators often drill multiple wells from each wellpad, this count is a more accurate representation of the number of locations around the Commonwealth where land has been cleared, pipelines have been laid, impoundments have been built, water and chemicals have been trucked in, and equipment has been assembled to drill and frack one or more wells. 


Click here or the animation above to explore an interactive map of wellpads observed in 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2013. The animation shows all observed wellpads cumulatively, 2005 = Blue, 2008 = Yellow, 2010 = Orange, and 2013 = Red. 

By itself this data might not be much different than what you could generate from looking at permit data and when drilling began, but we have included this phase in all our FrackFinder projects so that we can be sure we are looking at all the right places. Sometimes permit data is backlogged and a dataset you download today may not reflect everything that is happening in the real world. Additionally, having several years of crowdsourced image analysis data will enable us to do some nice comparisons to see how accurate state data are, as well as check the accuracy of our citizen scientists. 



Wellpad in a Pennsylvania State Forest in 2012. Credit: Bill Howard, The Downstream Project via LightHawk

To provide some context for all those points on the map, check out these aerial photos from our parters at the Downstream Project. Wellpads are typically 3-5 acre gravel parking lots surrounded by roads, impoundments, pipelines, and other related infrastructure. In high-density drilling areas, or areas with a lot of steep terrain, these sites can occupy 15-20 acres of interconnected industrial activity. Ultimately, we are doing these studies so that we can better understand the public and environmental health implications of living near these operations.

Stay tuned for news about a new FrackFinder project coming up for a brand new state (Hint: It’s a very mountainous state and the only one in the Union with this cardinal direction of the compass in its name). 

Oil Closes Another California Beach

Officials in Santa Barbara County, California, had to close another beach because of oil washing ashore from an as-yet unidentified source.  Summerland beach is located along the coast between the site of the Refugio State Beach pipeline oil spill back in late May, and the beaches of Ventura County that were also closed when tarballs began coming ashore a week after that.  Is the Summerland oil coming from some of the natural oil seeps in and around the Santa Barbara Channel?  Or is it coming from one of the offshore oil platforms in the vicinity?  

A beautifully clear Landsat-8 satellite image was taken on August 14.  Summerland is at top center on this sequence of images.  A faint slick several miles long dominates the center of the scene:

SkyTruth-SB-L8-14aug2015
Detail from Landsat-8 satellite image showing California coast around Summerland.
SkyTruth-SB-L8-14aug2015-annot
Seven oil platforms and three passing vessels are noted. Platform A was the site of the infamous Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969.  The slick in this image appears to emanate from the same location as Platform A. 
SkyTruth-SB-L8-14aug2015-annot-seeps
Locations of known natural seeps, and sample collection sites for oil slicks and tarballs, are shown.  Data from USGS / PCMSC. The USGS data show a “seep” or small cluster of seeps at the Platform A site.

It’s not clear to us if the “seeps” indicated by USGS on the data shown above are natural seeps that predate the installation of Platform A and the catastrophic subsea blowout and spill of 1969; or if “seep” in this case refers to the ongoing slow leakage of oil resulting from that blowout.  If you know, please write a comment below.  

This Sentinel radar satellite image taken yesterday (August 23, 2015) clearly shows the big metal oil platforms as rows of brilliant spots. The large dark patches are slicks — flat patches of water — but it’s not clear on this image if they are caused by seeps, variable wind, floating kelp, or (most likely) all of the above in this very dynamic place:

SkyTruth-SB-Sentinel-23aug2015
Sentinel-1A radar satellite image, same area as above, taken on August 23, 2015. Oil platforms are bright spots; slicks (oil and otherwise) are dark patches. Image courtesy Copernicus / ESA.
SkyTruth-SB-Sentinel-23aug2015-annot-seeps (1)
Radar image shwoing locations of oil platforms, as well as known oil seeps and sample locations from USGS / PCMSC. Image courtesy Copernicus / ESA.
Bottom line: We don’t see a clear culprit for the Summerland spill, but it might be worth flying over Platform A to see if the seepage there has recently increased for some reason.