April 20, 2024

How full are the oceans? New maps show what until now went unnoticed

Using satellite imagery and artificial intelligence, researchers have mapped human activity at sea more accurately than ever. The effort exposed a huge amount of previously undetected industrial activity, from suspicious fishing operations to an explosion of marine energy development.

The maps were published today in the magazine. Nature. Research led by Global Fishing Watch, a Google-backed nonprofit, revealed that a whopping 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 monitoring.

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

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

Almost all nations on Earth have agreed to the joint goal of protecting 30 percent of the Earth’s land and waters by 2030 under the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted last year. “The question is what 30 percent should we protect? And you can’t debate where the fishing activity takes place and where the oil platforms are unless you have this map,” says David Kroodsma, one of the authors of the study. Nature article and director of research and innovation at Global Fishing Watch.

Until now, Global Fishing Watch and other organizations relied mainly on the maritime Automatic Identification System (AIS) to see what was happening at sea. The system tracks vessels carrying a box that sends radio signals, and the data has been used in the past to document overfishing and forced labor on vessels. Even so, the system has important limitations. Requirements for carrying AIS vary by country and type of vessel. And it’s quite easy for someone to turn off the box when they want to avoid detection or navigate in places where signal strength is spotty.

To fill in the blanks, 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 is like taking photographs with a camera, Sentinel-1 uses advanced radar instruments to observe the Earth’s surface. Radar can penetrate clouds and “see” in the dark, and was able to detect offshore activity that AIS missed.

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

While fishing activity slowed 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 monitoring systems, particularly in the south and southeast. of Asia, and in the north and west. coasts of Africa.

The data also reflects a boom in the development of marine energy. Wind turbines outnumbered oil structures at the end of 2020. Turbines made up 48 percent of all ocean infrastructure the following year, while oil structures accounted for 38 percent.

Almost all offshore wind development took place off the coasts of northern Europe and China. In the northeastern United States, clean energy opponents have tried to falsely link whale deaths to upcoming offshore wind development, although evidence points to ship strikes as the problem.

Oil structures have many more ships swarming around them than wind turbines. Tankers are sometimes used to transport oil to shore as an alternative to pipelines. The number of oil structures grew by 16 percent in the five years studied. And offshore oil development was linked to five times more global ship traffic than wind turbines in 2021. “The actual amount of global ship traffic from wind turbines is small, compared to the rest of the world.” traffic,” says Kroodsma.

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When asked if this type of study would have been possible without artificial intelligence, “the short answer is no, I don’t think so,” says Fernando Paolo, lead author of the study and 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 enable researchers, analysts and policymakers in low-income countries to take advantage of tracking technologies at low cost,” says another article published in Nature today who comments on Paolo and Kroodsma’s research. “Until now, no comprehensive global map of these different types of maritime infrastructure was available,” says the paper written by Microsoft postdoctoral researcher Konstantin Klemmer and University of Colorado Boulder Assistant Professor Esther Rolf.

The technological advances come at a crucial time to document rapid changes in maritime activity, as nations try to stop climate change and protect biodiversity before it is too late. “The reason this is important is because there are more and more people. [at sea] and it is being used more and more and suddenly we have to decide how we are going to manage these gigantic global commons,” says Kroodsma. the Edge. “It can’t be the Wild West. And that’s how it has been historically.”

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