SkyTruth CTO: Paul Woods

When Paul Woods moved to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, SkyTruth’s home base, he was looking to get away from the Washington, D.C. area where we had been consulting in the tech industry during the dot com boom. His goal had been to find a slower pace and a more soul-satisfying lifestyle than the world of maximizing profit margins through software development. Now, he’s setting off to help save the oceans by revolutionizing the way the fishing industry works.

As the Chief Technology Officer at SkyTruth, Paul was instrumental in bringing Global Fishing Watch into being. [You can read about that here] Now, the platform we developed for identifying and tracking every commercial fishing vessel on the oceans is spinning off into an independent non-profit organization with Paul at the helm. As the interim CEO of Global Fishing Watch, Paul will be guiding the new organization through the transition. While we’re still keeping him in the fold, we thought it was a good time to sit down for a brief reflection on his path, his time at SkyTruth and a look into what’s next.

It’s a small town, so I guess when you landed in Shepherdstown in 2001, it was only a matter of time before you and SkyTruth found each other. How did you get involved?

It’s true just about everybody in Shepherdstown knows SkyTruth. When I met John (SkyTruth President, John Amos), I was working with another company, but I did a few side projects for SkyTruth. I also joined the board as technology advisor. Then, as the other work was winding down and I was looking for the next thing, I realized I just got a lot more out of the SkyTruth stuff than I did out of creating products to maximize clicks or streamline business processes.

In 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon spill happened, I helped John set up a rapid response website. Of course the whole oil spill incident opened an opportunity for growth at SkyTruth, and I realized I could apply my skills in the stuff I really like doing directly to issues that made a real difference in the world. That kind of direct application to saving the environment is so much more satisfying than just writing a check or writing a letter to your congressman.

By 2013, I came on full time, and one of the first projects we did was SkyTruth Alerts, which is still in use today.

I’m sure it’s rewarding to see Global Fishing Watch mature into its own organization. Do you have any reflections to share as you look back at your time at SkyTruth?

Over the years I’ve been working on many different projects at SkyTruth that have been deeply rewarding to me. Now that one of those projects has gotten big enough that it requires all of my time and attention to keep it running, which is enormously exciting.

What are your hopes for the future:

Clearly my immediate hopes and dreams are focused on the continued success and growth of Global Fishing Watch. I hope to see Global Fishing Watch arrive at a long term sustainable model that will propel its growth beyond me and be wildly successful at making fishing sustainable and helping save the oceans.

Personally, I guess I’m always looking for the next thing. I’m a start-up guy. That’s what I do. It’s what I like to do, so I guess my hope is that there will be another Global Fishing Watch around the corner a few years from now —another project with the same great impact and the same great opportunity to make the world a better place, and I’ll get to be involved in it. There’s a good chance that project is in its infancy right now at SkyTruth.

If you could see any place in the world from space, where would it be?

Anyplace? Well, we have recently detected new planets only four-and-a-half light years away, and at least one of them potentially has liquid water on it. The surface of Proxima Centauri B. That’s my first answer.

Great answer. What about here on Earth. If you could aim the SkyTruth “eye” where would you aim?

What would be really fantastic to see from space would be the bottom of the ocean, the sea floor. Unfortunately we can’t do that right now, but I think that would be the place I’d want to see.

Mining in Ghana’s Forest Reserves

Gold mining chewing up a forest reserve in Ghana. Satellite image taken in 2015.

The government of Ghana has been giving permission to major multinational mining corporations to conduct surface mining operations, mostly for gold, in areas that had been set aside as forest reserves.  Imagery from Google Earth tells the tale of one of these large operations, the Akyem mine operated by Newmont, a Colorado-based company.  The rapid explosion in size of the operation is obvious.  What’s less apparent is the magnitude of the impact on the adjacent forest reserve.  (To be clear: the mining is obliterating the forest, like surface mining anywhere. But we can’t say how big an area of the reserve has been affected.) We don’t have reliable data defining the boundaries of the reserve, so we can’t quantify the destruction of protected forest due to mining activity.  If we can find GIS-ready data showing the reserve boundaries, we’ll update this post.

Akyem project area, 2003. Pre-mining, moderate-resolution satellite image.

Akyem project area, 2012, two years after mining was approved. High-resolution satellite image.

Akyem project area, 2015. The mining operation is 6.5 kilometers across and covers a total area of about 10 square kilometers.  High-resolution satellite image. Smoke, tropical humidity, and dust blowing out of the Sahara make it tough to get crisp imagery in sub-Saharan Africa.

Bilge Dump? in Gulf of Mexico

Probable oil slicks on this Sentinel-1 radar satellite image, taken over the Taylor Energy site in the Gulf of Mexico at about 7:30 pm local time on February 14, caught our eye:

Sentinel-1 satellite radar image of the northern Gulf of Mexico, taken about 7:30 pm local time on February 14, 2017. Oil slicks are dark streaks. Ships and oil/gas platforms are bright spots. South Pass of the Mississippi Delta is at left. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

As usual, we can see a 9-mile-long slick emanating from that chronic oil leak that has been spilling oil continuously since 2004. The Taylor slick is drifting straight to the northeast away from the leak source on the seafloor.  But the image is dominated by a thicker-looking 28-mile-long slick closer to shore. It seems to almost hook up with the Taylor slick on it’s east end, suggesting it could be a major continuation of the Taylor slick.  This would make it one of the biggest slicks at Taylor we’ve ever observed; and if it is the Taylor slick, it makes a very unusual 180 degree turn.  That’s possible, given the complex currents:  outflow from the Mississippi River meets eddies spinning off the Gulf Stream, creating strong horizontal “shears” where the current on one side can be moving in a very different direction than on the other.  But there may be a simpler explanation: this could be an oily slick caused by intentional bilge dumping from a moving vessel.  Based on how the slick appears to be more pushed around by wind and current as you follow it back to the east, I’m guessing the vessel was moving from east to west, working its way around the tip of the Mississippi Delta parallel to shore.

Image above, labeled to identify oil slicks and the location of the chronic Taylor Energy leak. Possible vessel near west end of bilge slick marked by yellow circle. Sentinel-1 satellite radar image courtesy European Space Agency.

Dumping oily bilge is illegal in US waters, and we don’t often see this here — although it is a big problem elsewhere.  In this case, checking against our daily stream of Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship-tracking data, we haven’t been able to identify a possible culprit. There is a small bright spot near the west end of the slick that is probably a small vessel — there are no platforms or other structures at this location. This could be the culprit.  But it wasn’t broadcasting an AIS signal.

Detail from above, showing probable vessel located near west end of bilge slick. Is this the culprit? Sentinel-1 satellite radar image courtesy European Space Agency.

 

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 

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.