The ocean, covering over 70% of the Earth’s surface, has long remained a mystery in terms of human activity. However, researchers have made significant strides in uncovering the industrial use of the ocean, marking the emergence of what could be termed a “new industrial revolution” at sea. Utilizing space technology and artificial intelligence (AI
), a groundbreaking global map has been created to shed light on this previously concealed aspect of our planet.
Revealing the Hidden Industrialization at Sea
The study, led by Global Fishing Watch (GFW) and published in Nature, presents a comprehensive analysis of ocean industrialization, highlighting several noteworthy findings. It indicates that 75% of the world’s industrial fishing vessels, particularly concentrated in Africa and south Asia, operate without public tracking. Moreover, a significant portion of the activity of transport and energy vessels remains unaccounted for in public tracking systems. This revelation underscores the clandestine nature of numerous sea-based industrial operations.
Changing Dynamics of Maritime Operations
Despite a 12% global decrease in fishing due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the study uncovered a rapid growth in offshore structures at sea. Notably, the number of wind turbines has surpassed traditional oil structures, signifying a shift towards renewable energy sources. The proliferation of China’s offshore wind energy, which has increased ninefold since 2017, has significantly contributed to this transition. Additionally, European countries such as the UK and Germany have witnessed substantial surges in offshore wind development, further reshaping the maritime landscape.
Unveiling Illegal Activities and Marine Conservation Concerns
The analysis has also brought to the forefront hotspots of potential illegal activity, raising concerns about the encroachment of industrial fishing vessels on artisanal fishing grounds and marine protected areas. The presence of “dark” fishing vessels within these critical zones, such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Galápagos Islands, poses a severe threat to these globally significant reserves. These revelations underscore the urgent need for enhanced monitoring and regulatory measures to safeguard marine ecosystems.
Eliminating Blind Spots and Enhancing Transparency
David Kroodsma, the director of research and innovation at GFW and co-lead author of the study, aptly characterizes the findings as the revelation of an undetected “new industrial revolution” in our seas. By leveraging cutting-edge technology and mapping, the study aims to eliminate the blind spots associated with oceanic industrialization and foster greater transparency. The accessibility of the study’s open data, technology, and mapping marks a pivotal shift towards a new era in ocean management, empowering stakeholders to address critical issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions and marine degradation.
Unprecedented Technological Analysis
The comprehensive analysis was made possible through the collaboration of researchers from GFW, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, University of California, Santa Barbara, and SkyTruth. By analyzing a staggering 2 million gigabytes of satellite imagery between 2017 and 2021, the team successfully detected vessels and offshore infrastructure across six continents, where 75% of industrial activity is concentrated. The integration of GPS data with radar and optical imagery, supported by AI, enabled the identification of non-compliant vessels engaging in fishing activities.
Challenges and Imperatives for Ocean Governance
The study underscores the challenges posed by “dark fleets,” which operate beyond public monitoring systems, in protecting and managing marine resources. The absence of automatic identification system (AIS) devices on these vessels has been associated with major cases of illegal fishing and forced labor. The discrepancy revealed through the global map, demonstrating Asia’s dominance in industrial fishing activity compared to Europe, calls for urgent measures to address this imbalance.
Catalyzing Offshore Energy Development and Conservation Efforts
The research also highlights a notable surge in offshore energy development over five years, with a 16% increase in oil structures and a doubling in wind turbines. This trend signifies a vital transition towards sustainable energy sources, aligning with global efforts to mitigate climate change and minimize environmental impact.
The unveiling of the “new industrial revolution” at sea marks a critical turning point in our understanding of human activity in the ocean. The insights gleaned from this comprehensive analysis hold significant implications for marine conservation, sustainable energy development, and maritime governance. As this newfound transparency catalyzes global efforts to address the challenges and opportunities associated with oceanic industrialization, it paves the way for a more informed and proactive approach to safeguarding our planet’s most expansive and vital resource – the ocean.