Google announces AI oceans project to track, mitigate human harm at sea

A map of the world from Global Fishing Watch that denotes vessels like fish farms, oil rigs, wind farms, and more.

Google and Global Fishing Watch have announced a first-of-its-kind global map that shows ocean infrastructure around the planet, to better understand the full scope of human activity at sea.

This interactive map, powered by Google AI, shows things like wind turbines, fish farms, and more, which updates daily to depict real-time human activity at sea.

GFW has been working toward this milestone for years. The organization used similar technology to create the world’s first livestream map monitoring the global fishing fleet and made it public and freely available to the entire world. 

With the specific aim of reducing overfishing by tracking harmful fishing activities — especially from hidden vessels that don’t broadcast their positions publicly — researchers showed that it was possible to track human activity at sea to help confront major threats to the ocean’s environment.

But fishing isn’t the only human activity that takes place on this blue planet. 

So researchers used Google Earth Engine to analyze satellite radar and imagery across six continents. 

Similar to how AI can detect sidewalks, street signs, and road names in Google Maps, researchers used AI to identify ocean infrastructure that, until now, has been nearly impossible to analyze, such as oil rigs, fish farms, and more. 

The map shows 28,000 offshore structures around the world in 2024, including 10,000 oil and gas drilling platforms, over 14,000 wind turbines, 4,000 structures across aquaculture (fish farms), and ship navigation aids (like buoys and towers).

“Historically, vessel activity has been poorly documented, limiting our understanding of how the ocean — the world’s largest public resource — is being used,” Fernando Paolo, research lead and senior machine learning engineer at GFW, said in a statement. 

“By combining satellite technology and AI models, we now have eyes on the sea in a way we’ve never had before.”

While developing this dataset, researchers found that global oil platforms have increased by approximately 10% since 2017 (but are now slowly declining). Meanwhile, they discovered wind turbines have nearly tripled around the world, now outnumbering oil platforms. 

The development of offshore renewable energy comes with concerns about negative impacts to fishing, shipping, and biodiversity. Having data about the ocean’s infrastructure mitigates those human harms and provides a clearer, safer future for renewable energy development.

“Commercial wind developer Ocean Winds is using the datasets to identify the best locations for wind installations and show how they would affect the surrounding areas,” a blog post from Google explained

As clean energy grows on the map, researchers are still tracking carbon emissions — now with even more accuracy.

GFW has joined Climate TRACE and WattTime to measure and attribute sea emissions by country. In fact, by using the existing data, researchers found that more than 300 megatons of carbon emissions may come from bottom trawling, a fishing method that releases carbon when nets are dragged over the sea floor.

“This research has in turn informed targeted policy campaigns to restrict this practice,” Google’s blog post said. 

Similar policies are sure to make waves in other countries, as more and more data is unveiled about the deep blue sea.

In West Africa, for instance, governments now have a more comprehensive picture of the number of fishing vessels in their waters, allowing them to better patrol high-pressure areas and restore fish populations in overfished regions.

Additionally, GFW has become an official partner of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, a group of 118 countries working to protect 30% of the planet’s land and ocean by 2030.

But high-level government officials are not the only stakeholders in the health of the planet. 

Everyone can now access Google and GFW maps and datasets, which are available to the public for analysis and download, and will soon be available in Google Earth Engine, as well. 

“To collectively meet these ambitious goals, we will need the data to manage multiple industrial uses of the ocean, which covers 70% of the planet,” Google’s blog post stated. 

“We’re proud to provide tools that will help make this possible.”

Header image courtesy of Global Fishing Watch

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June 6, 2024 6:00 AM
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