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Satellite technology helping to expose chronic oil pollution at sea

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Posted at 4:12 PM, Jul 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-06 17:50:34-04

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — When the conditions are right, Captain Dominic Biagini spends most waking hours at sea.

“This time of year is my favorite time of year. This is our blue whale season,” said Biagini, who is also the owner of Gone Whale Watching in San Diego.

“Because our boats are small and fast, we started offering tours that go out to that special offshore zone that really no one was exploring," Biagini said.

His drone footage often goes viral on social media.

“I’m able to actually look into their world without them even knowing I’m doing it, and that lets us see some of the most breathtaking, beautiful imagery," Biagini said.

Last month, Biagini took passengers 65 miles off the coast of San Diego to a "blue whale mecca." South of the Navy-owned and operated San Clemente Island, he says a baby blue whale circled the boat for 30 minutes.

"But when we went back there on Saturday, what we found was pretty gut-wrenching," said Biagini. "All of a sudden, the ocean started looking, hard to describe it any other way, but like psychedelic."

The surface was covered with a rainbow sheen. Biagini documented the incident with his drone and captured footage of dolphins swimming through the substance.

“When we called the Coast Guard over the radio, they were asking how big the area was. We said we couldn’t tell, we couldn’t see the end in sight," said Biagini. "My passengers could not breathe, and we were driving 40 mph."

The Coast Guard is investigating the spill and suspects it was caused by petroleum-based products such as light fuel or diesel fuel. They responded to another spill that day near Point Loma.

“The public has very few ways to know what’s actually happening out in the ocean," said John Amos.

Amos is the founder and president of SkyTruth. The nonprofit uses satellite imagery to shine a spotlight on environmental problems around the world.

“We like to say we make the invisible, visible, and present it to people so that they can see for themselves. And by making it visible, you make it measurable and actionable," said Amos.

He says the nonprofit helped expose how much oil was gushing into the ocean during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill.

And that they routinely capture images of oily, bilge slicks discharged by large ships.

Called bilge dumping, he says the problem has largely remained hidden because it typically happens far out at sea. Bilgewater forms in most modern cargo and container vessels from the heavy oil they use for fuel. The thick, oily sludge needs to be emptied regularly, and some ships illegally dump it into the ocean.

“By integrating the satellite image of the pollution with the vessel identification broadcast, which are very precise in space and time, we can very confidently identify the vessel that’s responsible for this pollution – and we can name names," said Amos.

While fog prevented Amos’ team from pulling satellite images from the spill documented by Biagini, their computer model detected another suspected slick in the same area from May.

"One thing we've been able to do at SkyTruth is automate this process," said Amos. "We’ve used machine learning to train a computer model to analyze these satellite images and notify us when the computer thinks it detected an oil slick from a vessel.”

Called Project Cerulean, SkyTruth began building a machine learning model to spot oil slicks as part of the 2020 AWS Imagine Grant winner cohort. They estimate 1.32 million barrels of oil are being discharged by ships each year.

“We're starting to recognize that this source of chronic oil pollution in the ocean is really a significant environmental problem and socioeconomic problem because when that oil washes up on your beach, your tourism industry comes to a screeching halt, your fisheries have to close," said Amos.

They also map pollution events using government data available to the public.

“Every red dot on the map there around San Clemente Island is a report of an accidental or unknown oil or chemical spill," said Amos. “Cumulatively, you can see there are quite a few of these events reported in the area. That might suggest there’s some pattern of pollution occurring out there.”

As more satellites are deployed in the sky, Amos says it’ll be easier to detect spills in remote areas.

“It shouldn’t be up to small nonprofit organizations landlocked in West Virginia to be showing you what’s happening," said Amos. "Governments can and should be doing this and making it publicly transparent."

Without Biagini’s video, the spill likely would’ve gone undetected.

“This is not what I want to be going viral for," said Biagini. "This is our livelihoods on the line, on top of how much we care about these animals. We do this every day because the animals mean everything to us.”