How crowded are the oceans? New maps show what has remained under the radar until now

How crowded are the oceans?  New maps show what has remained under the radar until now

Using satellite images and artificial intelligence, researchers have been able to map human activity at sea with greater precision than ever before. These efforts have uncovered a vast amount of industrial activity that previously went under the radar, from shady fishing operations to exploding offshore energy development.

The maps were published today in the magazine nature. Research by Google-backed non-profit Global Fishing Watch revealed that three-quarters of the world's industrial fishing vessels are not publicly tracked. Up to 30 percent of transport and energy vessels also escape public tracking.

Researchers say these blind spots could hinder global conservation efforts. To better protect the world's oceans and fisheries, policymakers need a more accurate picture of where people are exploiting resources at sea.

“The question is what 30 percent should we protect?”

Nearly every country on Earth has agreed to a common goal of protecting 30 percent of the Earth's land and water by 2030 under the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted last year. “The question is, what 30 percent should we protect? You can't have discussions about where the fishing activity or oil rigs are unless you have that map,” says David Kroodsma, one of the study's authors. nature Paper and Director of Research and Innovation at Global Fishing Watch.

Until now, Global Fishing Watch and other organizations have relied mainly on the marine Automatic Identification System (AIS) to find out what is happening at sea. The system tracks ships carrying a box that sends out radio signals, and the data has been used in the past to document poaching and forced labor on board ships. However, there are major limitations to the system. AIS carry requirements vary by country and ship type. It is very easy for anyone to turn off the box when they want to avoid detection, or wander through locations where the signal strength is spotty.

To fill in the gaps, Kroodsma and his colleagues analyzed 2,000 terabytes of images from the European Space Agency's Sentinel-1 satellite constellation. Instead of taking traditional optical images, which are similar to taking pictures with a camera, Sentinel-1 uses advanced radar instruments to monitor the Earth's surface. The radar could penetrate clouds and “see” in the dark – and was able to detect marine activity that the AIS did not detect.

Data analysis reveals that about 75 percent of the world's industrial fishing vessels are not openly tracked, with most of this fishing taking place throughout Africa and South Asia.
Photo: Global Fishing Watch

Since 2,000 terabytes is a huge amount of data to process, the researchers developed three deep learning models to classify each ship detected, estimate its size, and sort different types of marine infrastructure. They monitored about 15 percent of the world's oceans where 75 percent of industrial activity occurs, paying attention to both ship movements and the development of fixed offshore structures such as oil platforms and wind turbines between 2017 and 2021.

While fishing activity declined at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, they found heavy vessel traffic in areas that “previously showed little or no vessel activity” in public tracking systems — particularly around South and Southeast Asia, and North and West Asia. Coasts of Africa.

A boom in marine energy development also appeared in the data. By the end of 2020, wind turbines outnumbered oil structures. Turbines accounted for 48 percent of all ocean infrastructure by the following year, while oil structures accounted for 38 percent.

Almost all offshore wind development has taken place off the coast of northern Europe and China. In the northeastern United States, opponents of clean energy have tried to incorrectly link whale deaths to the development of upcoming offshore wind even though evidence suggests ship collisions are the problem.

Oil hulls have many more ships circling around them than wind turbines. Tank ships are sometimes used to transport oil to shore as an alternative to pipelines. The number of oil installations increased by 16 percent during the five years included in the study. Offshore oil development was linked to five times as much global ship traffic as wind turbine traffic in 2021. “The actual volume of global ship traffic from wind turbines is small, compared to the rest of the traffic,” says Kroodsma.

Two thousand terabytes of satellite images were analyzed to reveal marine infrastructure in coastal waters across six continents, where more than three-quarters of industrial activity is concentrated.
Photo: Global Fishing Watch

When asked if this type of study would be possible without AI, “the short answer is no, I don't think so,” says Fernando Paulo, lead author of the study and a machine learning engineer at Global Fishing Watch. “Deep learning excels at finding patterns in large amounts of data.”

New machine learning tools being developed as open source software to process global satellite images “democratize access to data and tools and allow researchers, analysts and policy makers in low-income countries to take advantage of tracking technologies at low cost,” says another article published in the journal nature The day that comments on Paolo and Kroodsma's research. “Until now, no comprehensive global map of these different types of marine infrastructure is available,” says the article written by Microsoft postdoctoral researcher Konstantin Klemmer and University of Colorado Boulder assistant professor Esther Rolfe.

Technological progress comes at a crucial time to document rapid changes in marine activity, as countries try to halt climate change and protect biodiversity before it is too late. “The reason this is important is because it becomes more crowded (at sea) and it becomes more used, and suddenly you have to decide how we are going to manage this giant global commons,” Kroodsma says. The edge. “It can't be the Wild West. This is the way it has been historically.”

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