The world’s oceans are more crowded and busy than previously thought, according to a new study by Global Fishing Watch, published in Nature journal.
New deep machine learning
Researchers used a combination of satellite imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 and Artificial Intelligence to analyse 2,000 terabytes of advanced radar data – which can penetrate clouds and “see” in the dark. This method goes far beyond the traditional way of tracking maritime activity (the so-called Automatic Identification System, or AIS) through radio signals sent out from boxes on vessels. AIS is open to abuse by vessels which fail to carry or simply turn off the tracking signal when they wish to go unnoticed. The new deep machine learning approach fills in these gaps, and “excels at finding patterns in large amounts of data”, said Fernando Paolo, lead author of the study.
Shocking undisclosed industrial activity
The study focused on just 15 percent of the world’s oceans where 75 percent of industrial activity takes place, looking at vessel movements and the evolution of stationary offshore infrastructure between 2017 and 2021. But what it has revealed about human activity at sea is shocking, from suspicious fishing operations to a proliferation of offshore energy development. “By combining space technology with state-of-the-art machine learning, we mapped undisclosed industrial activity at sea on a scale never done before,” Paolo said.
The study shows a colossal 75% of the world’s industrial fishing vessels escape public tracking, as do up to 30 percent of transport and energy vessels. Much of the unofficial fishing takes place off the coasts of Africa and South Asia, with some areas that “previously showed little to no vessel activity” in fact experiencing heavy vessel traffic.
As for offshore energy development, wind turbines outnumbered oil structures by the end of 2020, composing 48 percent of all ocean infrastructure by the following year, while oil structures accounted for 38 percent. The vast majority of wind energy development is taking place in northern Europe and China. However, the number of oil structures grew 16 percent over the five years studied, with oil exploitation linked to five times as much vessel traffic globally as wind turbines in 2021. Why does this matter? Whale deaths have been linked to vessel strikes.
“It can’t be the Wild West”
“Until now, no comprehensive, global map of these different types of maritime infrastructure had been available,” commented Microsoft postdoctoral researcher Konstantin Klemmer and University of Colorado Boulder assistant professor Esther Rolf, also in Nature.
As nations try to stop climate change and protect biodiversity, with nearly all signed up to the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework’s joint target of protecting 30% of Earth’s land and waters by 2030, this study exposes the fact that the sea is “getting more crowded” said David Kroodsma, study co-author, speaking to The Verge. “Suddenly you have to decide how we’re going to manage this giant global commons. It can’t be the Wild West. And that’s the way it’s been historically.”