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