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Experts say that human actions are driving a "new industrial revolution" in the ocean.
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Experts say that human actions are driving a “new industrial revolution” in the ocean.

Using advanced technology and artificial intelligence, scientists have produced the inaugural worldwide chart of oceanic industrial activity, exposing the onset of a “new industrial era”.

According to a research conducted by Global Fishing Watch (GFW) and published in Nature, three-quarters of the world’s commercial fishing boats, primarily in Africa and south Asia, are not publicly monitored. Additionally, over 25% of transport and energy vessels’ movements are not recorded in public tracking systems.

During the time frame of 2017-2021, fishing experienced a decline of 12% worldwide as a result of the Covid pandemic. However, the study revealed an exponential growth in the number of offshore structures in the sea, with wind turbines surpassing oil structures in 2021. China experienced a ninefold increase in offshore wind energy since 2017, while Europe’s largest offshore wind developers, the UK and Germany, saw increases of 49% and 28% respectively.

The examination of ocean industrialization uncovers areas with high risk for illegal actions such as industrial fishing vessels trespassing on artisanal fishing territories or foreign waters. It also exposes the presence of “dark” fishing vessels within marine protected areas, with an average of over 20 sightings per week in the Great Barrier Reef and five per week in the Galápagos Islands. These two reserves are among the most closely monitored and ecologically significant in the world.

David Kroodsma, the co-lead author of the study and director of research and innovation at GFW, stated that a previously unnoticed industrial revolution is happening in our oceans. He compared this to the detailed maps we have of land, where almost every road and building is documented. However, the growth and development in our oceans have largely been hidden from public knowledge. This study aims to reveal the previously unknown areas of activity and provide insight into the extent and intensity of human impact on our seas.

Kroodsma stated that the open data, technology, and mapping utilized in the research will be accessible at no cost. This marks a significant shift towards more transparent ocean management. The information could potentially aid in determining greenhouse gas emissions in the ocean and monitoring the impact of oil pollution on marine ecosystems.

A team of scientists from GFW, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, University of California, Santa Barbara, and SkyTruth examined 2 million gigabytes of satellite images from 2017 to 2021 in order to identify ships and offshore structures in coastal areas across six continents, which account for 75% of global industrial activity.

Using data from GPS, radar, and optical imagery gathered over several years from sources like the European Space Agency, researchers were able to detect ships that did not broadcast their locations. With the help of artificial intelligence, they also estimated which of these ships were likely involved in fishing.

A tugboat pulling a wind power installation ship to sea in Shandong Province, China in on 2 January 2024.

According to Fernando Paolo, a machine-learning engineer at GFW, the records of vessel activity have not been well-documented in the past, which hinders our comprehension of how the ocean, the world’s biggest resource, is being utilized.

Although it is not mandatory for all boats to share their location while at sea, there is a concern for vessels that are not included in public tracking systems, referred to as “dark fleets”. These fleets create obstacles for safeguarding and regulating marine resources. In recent times, the most significant incidents of illegal fishing and labor exploitation were committed by fleets that did not utilize automatic identification system (AIS) technology.

According to AIS data, Europe and Asia have similar levels of industrial fishing. However, a new global map that includes vessels not using AIS reveals that Asia is the dominant region. For every 10 fishing vessels, seven were located in Asia and only one in Europe.

Research funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and GFW’s technology collaborator, Google, revealed a significant growth in offshore energy development over a period of five years, with a 16% rise in oil structures and a doubling in wind turbines.

Source: theguardian.com