Mapping Human Activity at Sea From Space

Satellite imagery reveals extensive undisclosed industrial activity across the ocean

Mapping Human Activity at Sea From Space

Satellite imagery reveals extensive undisclosed industrial activity across the ocean

Innovative research, harnessing AI and satellite imagery, shows the expanding footprint of human activity at sea, and reveals previously unmapped industrial use of the ocean and how it is changing.

Led by Global Fishing Watch, researchers used machine learning to analyze 2 petabytes of imagery—five years’ worth of data—to illuminate vessel activity and offshore development in coastal waters across six continents.

This included fishing vessel activity,

as well as non-fishing vessels

and showed offshore energy infrastructure and support vessel traffic, including oil platforms

and wind turbines.

This effort produced the first global map of large vessel traffic and offshore infrastructure—and revealed activity that was previously dark to public monitoring systems.

Thanks to this research, we now have a snapshot of how industrial use of the ocean is evolving across fishing, shipping and offshore development.

“Historically, vessel activity has been poorly documented, limiting our understanding of how the ocean—the world’s largest public resource—is being used. By combining satellite technology and AI models, we now have eyes on the sea in a way we’ve never had before.”

Fernando Paolo, research lead and senior machine learning engineer at Global Fishing Watch

By synthesizing GPS data with radar and optical imagery, researchers detected ships failing to broadcast their positions. And then they trained machine learning models to identify which of these were likely fishing vessels.

Their analysis revealed about 75 percent of industrial fishing vessels are not publicly tracked.

While public tracking data in Asia and Europe suggest similar amounts of fishing activity is taking place within their borders, satellite imagery reveals a different story.

For every 10 fishing vessels detected on the water, 7 were in Asia while only 1 was in Europe.

Strait of Sicily
Brittany Coast
Bay of Bengal
Thailand
Sea of Japan

The research also revealed a surge in offshore energy development is changing the landscape of the ocean. The number of oil platforms has increased by 16 percent over the course of five years while the number of wind turbines has more than doubled.

The research also revealed a surge in offshore energy development is changing the landscape of the ocean. The number of oil platforms has increased by 16 percent over the course of five years while the number of wind turbines has more than doubled.

In fact, in 2021, for the first time, turbines outnumbered oil platforms in the ocean.

In fact, in 2021, for the first time, turbines outnumbered oil platforms in the ocean.

China’s offshore wind energy saw the most striking growth, increasing ninefold from 2017 – 2021, averaging about 950 turbine installations each year.

And then there’s offshore drilling.

Nearly 30 percent of the world’s oil supply is produced offshore and then distributed worldwide.

And then there’s offshore drilling.

Nearly 30 percent of the world’s oil supply is produced offshore and then distributed worldwide.

This heavy industry relies on a complex network of vessels to get petroleum to refineries and markets worldwide.

These vessels often operate near highly urbanized areas and their activity sometimes overlaps with critical fishing grounds.

North Sea
Gulf of Thailand
Persian Gulf
Gulf of Mexico
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North Sea
Gulf of Thailand
Persian Gulf
Gulf of Mexico
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International waterways are also crowded with massive container ships responsible for transporting approximately 80 percent of all traded goods.

International waterways are also crowded with massive container ships responsible for transporting approximately 80 percent of all traded goods.

But despite their size and integral role in the supply chain, more than 25 percent of these transport and energy vessels are missing from public tracking systems.
Indonesia
Baltic Sea
Korea Strait
Persian Gulf
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So little is known about what takes place beyond the horizon, leaving authorities, managers and decision-makers operating in the dark.

But open data and technology are changing that.

But open data and technology are changing that.

This research marks the beginning of a new era for ocean governance – one that is founded on transparency.

We are mapping all industrial human activity at sea, making it freely available to the world in an initiative we call the open ocean project.

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