Researchers use AI to spot humanity’s hidden sea activity

4 Jan 2024

A map showing previously unmapped activity in the North Sea. Image: Global Fishing Watch

The study suggests that at least 72pc of global fishing activity is not tracked and that there has been a surge in offshore energy development.

A new study has used a combination of AI and satellite imagery to observe the growing footprint humanity is making in the sea.

This study – led by Global Fishing Watch – suggests that the majority of the worlds’ industrial fishing is not publicly monitored. The researchers used machine learning and 2m gigabytes of satellite imagery – taken between 2017 and 2021 – to create a global map of both large vessel traffic and offshore infrastructure.

The team used five years of radar and optical imagery to identify vessels that failed to broadcast their positions. Machine learning was then used to conclude which of these vessels were likely engaged in fishing activity. The results suggest that between 72pc and 76pc of industrial fishing globally is not tracked.

“Historically, vessel activity has been poorly documented, limiting our understanding of how the world’s largest public resource – the ocean – is being used,” said co-lead author Dr Fernando Paolo. “By combining space technology with state-of-the-art machine learning, we mapped undisclosed industrial activity at sea on a scale never done before.”

A map showing the North Sea, with Ireland, the UK and parts of Europe visible in the image. Different coloured dots and lines are in the image to show forms of human activity on the sea.

A map showing industrial activity in the North Sea. Image: Global Fishing Watch

Global Fishing Watch said this hidden fishing activity causes challenges when it comes to protecting and managing natural resources. The organisation claims many of these hidden fishing vessels – dubbed “dark fleets” – were found inside marine protected areas. A high concentration of vessels were also spotted in country waters that previously showed “little-to-no vessel activity by public monitoring systems”.

The study also claims that fishing activity dropped globally in recent years – coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic. The data suggests that human fishing dropped globally by roughly 12pc, while transport and energy vessel activity remained stable.

Meanwhile, offshore energy development has surged in recent years, with oil structures growing by 16pc and the number of wind turbines doubling during the five-year period of satellite imagery. This suggests that wind turbines outnumbered oil platforms globally by 2021.

“Having a more complete view of ocean industrialisation allows us to see new growth in offshore wind, aquaculture and mining that is rapidly being added to established industrial fishing, shipping and oil and gas activities,” said study co-author Prof Patrick Halpin.

“Our work reveals that the global ocean is a busy, crowded and complex industrial workspace of the growing blue economy.”

Global Fishing Watch said the study shows potential in using technology to tackle the climate crisis, as mapping vessel traffic can improve estimates of greenhouse gas emissions at sea. The organisation also said creating maps of infrastructure can inform wind development and aid in tracking marine degradation caused by oil exploration.

Last year, the UN signed a deal to protect 30pc of the world’s oceans, by creating large-scale marine protected areas to tackle environmental degradation and prevent biodiversity loss across the world’s high seas (areas of ocean outside of national boundaries).

As part of this, all activities on the high seas will require environmental impact assessments, and fishing, shipping lanes and sea bed mining will all face new restrictions. The agreement needs to be ratified by UN member states in order for it to come into force.

Towards the end of 2023, geologist and hydrographer Eoin Mac Craith explained his role on a seabed-mapping project and why it’s harder to map shallow water than deep.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic