Author Archives: Kristine L Ming

Wot, no signal?

Sky and Space Global's nano-satellitesImage copyright
Sky and Space Global

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Arrays of tiny satellites will bring mobile services to billions who currently have no access

Large chunks of the planet are still of out of reach of mobile phone signals – billions are still without access to digital communications. But this could change thanks to shrinking satellite sizes and costs.

Lower-cost, space-based mobile phone services will soon be a reality thanks to one firm’s fleet of nano-satellites that will bounce your voice or text signal from one spacecraft to the next and finally down to the person you’re calling.

“People were thinking of using nano-satellites for Earth imagery but nobody had thought of using them for voice or text communications,” says Israeli former fighter pilot Meir Moalem, the chief executive of Sky and Space Global (SAS).

“We were the first.”

His firm is aiming to offer customers mobile phone connections via a constellation of 200 shoebox-sized satellites weighing just 10kg (22lb) each.

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Sky and Space Global

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Sky and Space Global’s Meir Moalem wants to bring affordable mobile services to the world

The fleet is set to be operational by 2020 and will provide text, voice and data transfer services to the Earth’s equatorial regions – including much of Latin America and Africa – to a market of up to three billion people.

“Affordable mobile services are critical for the economic and social development of many developing countries,” says Mr Moalem, who believes SAS’s nano-satellites will shake up the space-based communications market.

“Our total constellation costs just $150m (£108m). That’s less than the cost of a single standard communications satellite. This is what we mean when we talk of a disruptive technology.”

But SAS is just one of a number of companies with big plans for space right now.

Perhaps the most ambitious is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is aiming to build a huge 4,400-satellite constellation offering global internet coverage. It will be using its own Falcon-9 rockets to launch its fleet and plans to have the network operating by 2024.

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SpaceX has ambitious plans of its own for space-based communications

And OneWeb has an 800-satellite constellation set for 2020, again focused on global broadband, while Google and Samsung are also mulling similar initiatives.

With all these satellites, low-Earth orbit – an altitude of 2,000km (1,200 miles) or less above the planet – is becoming an increasingly crowded space. This could make future launches potentially difficult and dangerous with space debris.

Then there is the issue of finance. Not every planned constellation is going to find the investors with deep enough pockets to back it, though David Fraser, research director at APP Securities, says SAS could be “an attractive alternative option” given its low capital costs.

Media captionWhy firms are spending millions to beat each other into orbit

Vincent Chan, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, believes that satellite miniaturisation and cheaper launch vehicles mean that the “nano-sat is ready to serve the public”.

Such lower-cost infrastructure could bring much-needed mobile communications to the world’s poorer regions, he says, helping to reduce the digital divide.

But, he adds, SAS’s focus on voice and text services rather than broadband internet, suggests that “the digital divide will be narrower but not disappear”.

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Virgin Orbit

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Virgin Orbit’s modified 747 will carry a launcher rocket that will blast the satellites into space

For its part, SAS is using a non-traditional method of getting its satellites into orbit. They will be air-launched in batches of 24 by Virgin Orbit, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin group.

Virgin’s modified Boeing 747-400 will fly up to 35,000ft (10,000m), then LauncherOne, a two-stage liquid oxygen-powered expendable rocket, will blast the payload into orbit.

It’s one of a number of air-launch-to-orbit systems under development.

The advantage of launching from an aircraft is that the rocket can be launched in exactly the direction to suit the satellite’s planned orbit. Virgin is planning its first launch later this year, while SAS’s craft will be launched in 2019.

Launch costs will typically be about $12m, much less than a traditional launch, says Virgin. It is “all about helping the small satellite community get into orbit,” says Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s president and chief executive.

Such lower-cost launch services will open up space to “a whole host of communications [and] remote sensing applications,” he says.

SAS has already proved that its communications systems works with three pilot satellites, and is now signing deals with partners in Africa and Latin America – including one of the biggest satellite-communications providers in the Americas, Globalsat Group.

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Sky and Space Global

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Nano-satellites are not much bigger than a shoebox

Globalsat’s chief executive, Alberto Palacios, says his firm’s current customers – in the mining, energy, defence banking, and government sectors – can afford the costs of traditional satellite phone calls.

But he believes nano-satellites are a game-changer.

“Some customers invest several hundreds of dollars in the hardware for a satellite phone terminal and will pay $50 a month for the service. But if you can offer a solution for half of that – then the price can be compared to conventional mobile phones,” he explains.

SAS says it is going for the gap in the market between existing satellite communications operators, such as Iridium, Inmarsat and Globalstar, and land-based mobile networks such as Vodafone, Telefonica, Airtel and Safaricom.

It is targeting customers earning less than $8 a day.

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SAS’s satellites will help Ghana monitor cocoa production across the country

In Ghana, the company has just signed a five-year deal with telecoms provider Universal Cyberlinks to help government agricultural projects and public services, including monitoring cocoa production across 5,000 buying centres and checkpoints.

“When you travel outside of a city in Africa, often you lose your phone signal because it is not cost-effective to put up phone masts everywhere. That’s where we come in,” says Mr Moalem.

“In the West, we tend to forget that in many parts of the world people are not concerned about high-speed internet, they want to make simple phone calls, texting or money transfers. It’s a basic need.”

Africa is certainly becoming a key market for mobile services. There were 420 million mobile subscribers in 2016 and by 2020 there will be more than 500 million, around half the population, says industry body GSMA.

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For his part, as you might expect of a former fighter pilot, Meir Moalem is optimistic about any rivals muscling in to the nano-sat communications niche.

“We welcome competition. It means we are a good business and there is money to be made,” he says.

“There is room for other firms to do this, but we will have ‘first mover’ advantage.”

  • Follow Technology of Business editor Matthew Wall on Twitter and Facebook

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Seychelles protects an area ‘as big as Britain’ in Indian Ocean

Waves break on the beach of an island in the SeychellesImage copyright
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The island nation plans to protect 30% of its seas by 2020

The Seychelles has created protected areas “the size of Great Britain” in the Indian Ocean.

In exchange for getting some of its national debt paid off, the island nation has agreed to protect 210,000 sq km (81,000 sq miles) of ocean.

The reserves will limit tourism and fishing activities in the Seychelles to halt further damage to aquatic life.

A foundation set up by actor Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the investors that worked on the deal.

The Oscar winner said: “This effort will help the people of Seychelles protect their ocean for future generations, and will serve as a model for future marine conservation projects worldwide.”

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Getty Images

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Leonardo DiCaprio is among investors who helped fund the deal

Seychelles President Danny Faure said: “Our large ocean brings development opportunities but also responsibility.

“By planning properly to protect our environment, we can be sure we are also protecting our people and their livelihoods against an uncertain future. “

What is the deal?

This is understood to be the first debt swap designed to protect ocean areas in the world.

The Seychelles government agreed the debt swap with the Nature Conservancy, a US charity, and a number of investors back in 2016.

Under the terms of the $21m (£15m) deal, the charity and the investors – including the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation – paid for a portion of the Seychelles national debt.

The country will then direct future national debt payments into a new trust, the Seychelles Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust (SeyCCAT).

This trust will offer lower interest rates on debt repayments, and any savings will go to fund new projects designed to protect marine life and handle the effects of climate change.

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The dugong is one of the sea animals that will be protected

What will be protected?

The Seychelles is raising the percentage of its protected waters from 0.04% to 30% by 2020 as part of the agreement.

This first part of the plan creates two new marine parks.

The first covers the Aldabra islands, home to hundreds of thousands of tortoises, nesting bird colonies, and the dugong – one of the more endangered species in the Indian Ocean.

This area will be fully protected, with only research and regulated tourism allowed.

The second area concerns the seas around the Seychelles’ main islands and will limit the fishing and tourism activities there.

“This is a critical accomplishment in our mission to bring conservation to scale across the globe,” said Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek.

“What you see today in Seychelles is what we expect to introduce in the Caribbean and other ocean regions facing the threats of climate change.”

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Plastic straws could be banned, suggests Michael Gove

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Environment Secretary Michael Gove has suggested that plastic straws could be banned in Britain.

When asked by the Daily Telegraph if he would prohibit plastic straws Mr Gove replied “watch this space”.

He added that a balanced approach would be needed but said: “If it is bad, then banning it is a good thing.”

The Marine Conservation Society estimates the UK uses 8.5 billion straws every year which are among the top 10 items found in beach clean-ups.

Michael Gove also argued that outlawing plastic straws would be easier post-Brexit.

He said that being in the EU meant there were “some steps we might want to take environmentally that we can’t yet.”

But Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans said the EU was already ahead of the UK on Twitter:

Skip Twitter post by @TimmermansEU

End of Twitter post by @TimmermansEU

Mr Gove responded by claiming there had been “no specific proposal – as yet – from the EU to ban straws”.

According to the campaign group, Refuse The Straw, plastic straws take over 200 years to break down.

In January the Prime Minister Theresa May said she wanted to eliminate all avoidable plastic within 25 years.

Media captionScience reporter Victoria Gill looks at why there is so much plastic on beaches

A number of restaurants including JD Wetherspoon, Wagamama and Pizza Express have announced that plastic straws would be phased out or only made available on request.

The Queen has also sought to reduce plastic straw usage at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

However, a disability group has expressed concerns about the move to ban plastic straws.

The Scottish campaigning group, One in Five, has said organisations were “racing ahead” to respond to “understandable environmental concerns” without having “fully considered the needs of some disabled people”.

The group argues that paper straws cannot be used for hot drinks and that metal straws could be dangerous for those with Parkinson’s.

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Getty Images

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The alternatives to plastic straws are not always suitable

The recent BBC documentary Blue Planet II, narrated by David Attenborough, highlighted the damage caused by plastic in the sea.

This included a case of a pilot whale calf which is thought to have died after consuming its mother’s milk contaminated with toxic chemicals from plastic.

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A government spokesman said: “We are committed through our 25-year environment plan to eliminating avoidable plastic altogether by the end of 2042 so we leave our planet in a better state than we found it.”

“We are exploring a range of options, and have already introduced a world-leading ban on microbeads, and set out plans to extend the 5p plastic bag charge, improve recycling rates and explore plastic-free aisles in supermarkets.”

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U.N. Security Council delays vote on Syria ceasefire resolution

The U.N. Security Council on Friday delayed a vote on a demand for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria, where pro-government warplanes have been pounding the last rebel bastion near Damascus in one of the deadliest bombing campaigns of the seven-year civil war.

A draft resolution aimed at ending the carnage in the eastern Ghouta district and elsewhere in Syria will be put up for a vote in the 15-member council at noon (1700 GMT) on Saturday, Kuwait’s U.N. Ambassador Mansour Ayyad Al-Otaibi said.

Al-Otaibi said negotiations were centered on the language of one paragraph that specifically demands a cessation of hostilities for 30 days, possibly starting 72 hours after adoption, to allow aid access and medical evacuations.

“We have not been able to close the gap completely,” Olof Skoog, Sweden’s U.N. ambassador, told reporters. “We’re not going to give up. … I hope that we will adopt something forceful, meaningful, impactful tomorrow.” The delay followed a flurry of last-minute negotiations on the text drafted by Sweden and Kuwait after Russia, a veto-holding ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, proposed new amendments.

“Unbelievable that Russia is stalling a vote on a ceasefire allowing humanitarian access in Syria,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley posted on Twitter.

Previous ceasefires, however, have had a poor record of ending fighting in Syria, where Assad’s forces have gained the upper hand.

The towns and farms of eastern Ghouta have been under government siege since 2013, with shortages of food, water and electricity that worsened last year. Earlier on Friday, the densely populated enclave was bombed for a sixth straight day, witnesses said.

The civilian casualties and devastation there are among the worst in Syria since the government captured rebel-held parts of Aleppo in 2016. At least 462 people have been killed, including at least 99 children, and many hundreds injured, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Friday.

Syrian state media reported one person was killed and 58 injured in rebel shelling of sites in Damascus, including a hospital.

Clouding any potential ceasefire is the Syrian government’s frequently used tactic of pushing rebels to surrender their strongholds after long sieges and military offensives.

Insurgents in eastern Ghouta have vowed not to accept such a fate, ruling out an evacuation of fighters, their families and other civilians of the kind that ended rebellions in Aleppo and Homs after heavy bombardment in earlier years.

“We refuse categorically any initiative that includes getting the residents out of their homes and moving them elsewhere,” Ghouta rebel factions wrote in a letter to the Security Council.

Eastern Ghouta has 400,000 people spread over a larger area than other enclaves the government has recaptured. Late on Thursday, government aircraft dropped leaflets urging civilians to depart and hand themselves over to the Syrian army, marking corridors through which they could leave safely.

PRESSURE ON RUSSIA Leading up to the Security Council vote, all eyes have been on Russia amid concerns it would block the resolution or seek to water it down. Moscow has a history of standing in the way of Security Council measures that would harm Assad’s interests.

Germany and France were among the nations to ratchet up the pressure on Russia, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to support the resolution.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow wanted guarantees that rebel fighters will not shoot at residential areas in Damascus.

Damascus and Moscow say they only target militants. They have said their main aim is to stop rebel shelling of the capital, and have accused insurgents in Ghouta of holding residents as human shields.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government planes and artillery hit Douma, Zamalka and other towns across the enclave in the early hours of Friday.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military.

Medical charities say more than a dozen hospitals were hit, making it nearly impossible to treat the wounded.

A witness in Douma who asked not to be identified said by telephone that the early morning bombing was the most intense so far. Another resident, in the town of Hamouriyeh, said the assault had continued “like the other days.” “Whenever the bombing stops for some moments, the Civil Defence vehicles go out to the targeted places. They work to remove the debris from the road,” Bilal Abu Salah said.

The Civil Defence there said its rescuers rushed to help the wounded after strikes on Hamouriyeh and Saqba. The emergency service, which operates in rebel territory, says it has pulled hundreds of people out from under rubble in recent days.

Hamza Birqdar, the military spokesman for the Jaish al-Islam rebel faction, said it had thwarted nine attacks by pro-government militias trying to storm a front in the southeast of Ghouta.

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Saudis attend country’s first jazz festival

Men and women swayed to music at Saudi Arabia’s first-ever jazz festival on Friday, the second of a three-day outdoor event that showcases the Kingdom’s recent efforts of shedding its conservative image.

Locals and foreigners flocked to the festival to watch bands from Riyadh, Beirut and New Orleans. The crowd sang along when Lebanon’s Chady Nashef performed the Eagles’ “Hotel California” – an unusual moment in the Islamic country after the religious police last year condemned concerts that feature singing as harmful and corrupting.

On Thursday, the General Entertainment Authority announced it will stage more than 5,000 shows, festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year.

The entertainment plans are largely motivated by economics, part of a reform program to diversify the economy away from oil and create jobs for young Saudis.

They also mark a change in social Saudi life and the gradual relaxing of gender segregation, although restrictions persist. At the festival, the area in front of the stage was divided into two sections – one for men and one for women – but people mixed in family seating areas on the side and in the back.

“I am so so happy I got up from bed this morning and went to a jazz festival and performed in front of a crowd like me, my countrymen,” said Saleh Zaid, a Saudi musician from the local band Min Riyadh. “It’s a feeling I just cannot explain to you.” While some showed up out of a love for jazz, many came to enjoy the chance to hear music at an outdoor event, with food trucks, a vintage car display and a relaxed atmosphere.

While reforms have taken place in the Kingdom, with a 35-year cinema ban lifted and women set to drive later this year, the majority of the country is conservative, which is reflected in government decisions.

Earlier this month, authorities detained a man after a video of him dancing with a woman in the street went viral.

But on Friday, women in abayas, loose-fitting robes, moved with the music, unconcerned with the possible backlash.

“This festival shows that the leadership here wants to let the people open up, to see more things, more cultures,” said Salem al-Ahmed, who with his stylish young friends jumped at the opportunity to attend his city’s first-of-a-kind festival.

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EU parliament politicians call for a full ban of Hezbollah

Members of the European Union parliament sent a letter on Thursday to EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, urging her to classify all of the Lebanese organization Hezbollah as a terrorist entity.

MEP Anders Vistisen, one of the three co-initiators of the letter, said:

“It’s outrageous that the European Union still has not denounced Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah’s growing arsenal and entanglement in regional conflicts severely destabilizes certain countries and the wider Middle East. It is high time to acknowledge that Islamist inspired terrorism is not only a threat to the Middle East, but is also the top threat to Europe’s security.”

The letter was signed by a cross-section of 60 members of the European Parliament. The other two co-initiators were Lars Adaktusson and Péter Niedermüller.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid was in Brussels at the time of the MEP letter submission and said: “As part of an ongoing effort led by myself and my friend congressman Ted Deutch [Democrat-Florida], I raised this issue today with the Ambassadors to the EU and with Foreign Minister Mogherini. Hezbollah is one entity and that entity is a terror organization. It is time for the European Union to ban the entirety of Hezbollah and stop the money, recruitment of terrorists and shows of public support which are taking place on European soil. This letter is a welcome initiative and sooner or later the European Union will have to do the right thing.”

MEP Adaktusson said, “In order to stop Hezbollah’s extensive terrorist activities, the EU approach has to change. Hezbollah is one united organization, and the EU policy cannot be based on a pretend division of this terrorist organization into a civilian and a military wing.”

The European Union only designated Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist entity in 2012. The proscription of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization came in response to an attack by the organization on an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria in 2012, which resulted in the deaths of five Israelis and their Bulgarian Muslim bus driver. An additional 32 Israelis were injured.

A specialized court in Sofia, Bulgaria is currently conducting a trial in absentia against two Hezbollah operatives involved in the attack. A third Hezbollah operative died during the bomb blast.

“It is a widely known fact that Hezbollah, just like Hamas, is a typical terror organization. Their goal is not peace in the Middle East, but prolonging the crisis and promoting hate. Both of them should have been officially designated as terror organizations a long time ago. Those who support these organizations endanger peace, and the EU’s moral obligation is to stand with Israel on this issue,” said MEP  Niedermüller.

Daniel Schwammenthal, Director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) EU office, the AJC Transatlantic Institute, said “The broad, cross-party support this letter has received underscores the fact that there, is luckily, a growing realization in Europe that Hezbollah is a monumental threat not only to Syrians, Israelis and of course Lebanese, but ultimately also to European security.”

“One can only hope that the EU will act upon this letter and change its policy on Hezbollah,” he added.

“The false distinction between so-called military and political wings is just that — a false distinction. By banning the group in its entirety, the EU would give itself the tools to track Hezbollah’s money flows and stop it from raising funds and recruits in Europe,” Schwammenthal said.

The letter outlines Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and beyond the region. Hezbollah has amassed 150,000 rockets in violation of UN Security Resolution 1701, and supported the Syrian regime in its war crimes. The letter states “In light of the above and Europe’s strong commitment against intolerance and terrorism, we firmly urge the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council to proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety. Only by recognizing the organization’s true nature may we be successful in protecting Europe and our common values.”

Benjamin Nägele, Director EU Affairs B’nai B’rith International, said that “Any distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wings is an artificial one.  Even the organization’s leaders view the two branches as part of the same entity, with money passing freely between them. Omitting the political wing from the EU’s terrorist list allows Hezbollah to openly organize and fundraise in Europe for its murderous agenda.” He added that”designating Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist entity would be the long overdue catch up to the reality of the Iranian proxy’s role and its murderous agenda in the region.”

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Bombs rain down on Syria ahead of UN truce vote

BEIRUT- A new wave of bombs struck Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Friday, which a witness in one town described as the worst yet, ahead of a UN Security Council vote to demand a 30-day ceasefire across the country.

For a sixth straight day, warplanes have pounded the densely populated agricultural pocket east of the capital, the last rebel bastion near Damascus. The escalation has killed at least 417 people and injured hundreds more, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says.

Medical charities say jets have hit more than a dozen hospitals, making it near impossible to treat the wounded.

The Britain-based Observatory said government warplanes and artillery hit Douma, Zamalka, and other towns across the enclave in the early hours on Friday. A witness in Douma, who asked not to be identified, said by phone the early morning bombing was the most intense so far.

The bombing of eastern Ghouta since Sunday night has been among the fiercest of the war, now entering its eighth year.

The Civil Defence in eastern Ghouta said its rescuers rushed to help the wounded after strikes on the town of Hammouriyeh on Friday morning. The emergency service, which operates in rebel territory, says it has pulled hundreds of people from under the rubble in recent days.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military.

Damascus and Moscow say they only target militants, and that they aim to prevent rebels from shelling the capital with mortars. They have accused insurgents of holding residents as human shields in the Ghouta.

Nearly 400,000 people live in eastern Ghouta, a pocket of satellite towns and farms that has been under government siege since 2013.

The UN envoy for Syria has pleaded for a truce to halt one of the worst air assaults of the seven-year war and prevent a “massacre.”

The UN Security Council was considering a resolution, which Kuwait and Sweden drafted, demanding “a cessation of hostilities throughout Syria for all military operations” for 30 days to allow aid deliveries and medical evacuations.

The vote is set to take place on Friday. The resolution does not cover the groups Islamic State, al Qaida and the Nusra Front, which Moscow and Damascus say they have targeted in eastern Ghouta.

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‘Fishing continued’ after East China sea oil spill

It shows smoke and flames coming from the burning oil tanker Sanchi at sea off the coast of eastern ChinaImage copyright
AFP/Transport Ministry of China

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The tanker carried a highly toxic petroleum product that became invisible after the spill

Fishing continued at the site of a massive oil spill in the East China Sea for days after the incident, satellite images obtained by the BBC suggest.

Most of the fishing vessels in the affected region were identified as Chinese.

There have been major concerns over possible contamination in seafood and marine life in and around the region.

The spill occurred after an oil tanker collided with another cargo ship on 6 January before sinking days later.

It was transporting 136,000 tonnes, or almost one million barrels, of ultra-light crude oil, known as condensate, to South Korea.

It is feared to be highly toxic and is invisible, unlike the shimmering slick on the sea-surface seen after crude-oil leaks.

Experts say it is the first time petroleum product of this type has spilled in such huge quantity.

Independent experts say fishing was not stopped until much later and reports in the Chinese media indicate the same.

The BBC obtained satellite images and data showing the presence of fishing boats in the area following the event.

China is a major seafood exporter and the impacted region is known to be rich in fisheries including species like crab, squid, yellow croaker, mackerel, among others.

The Chinese state oceanic administration did not respond to repeated BBC requests for comment on fishing activities.

According to the agriculture ministry website, an area of 30 nautical miles radius from the accident site was declared as a prohibited zone after the accident.

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AFP/Transport Ministry of China

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Scientists say the visible slick on the sea surface is most likely the fuel the tanker was using

“Based on our analysis, we estimate fishing activities to have likely continued in the area since the incident occurred, including within 60 nautical miles of the sinking site,” said Brad Soule, chief analyst with OceanMind, a not-for-profit organisation specialising in tracking fishing activities.

The group’s analysis estimates that there were more than 400 fishing vessels operating within the region between 6 January and 25 January, while 13 were detected within 60 nautical miles of the sinking site.

Sanchi, the tanker carrying the oil from Iran, is believed to have drifted between 50 to 100 nautical miles south after the collision before it sank.

This could mean that it continued spilling the condensate all along the way before it went down.

China’s Ministry of Transport said that a salvage team had located the sunken vessel at a depth of 115m (380ft).

“Between January 26 and February 14, 146 observed fishing vessels were active in the region and two observed fishing vessels active within 60 nautical miles of the sinking site,” OceanMind said in its analysis.

Mr Soule said the analysis was based on transmissions received from only fishing vessels which were travelling at speeds that are associated with fishing activity, slower than typical travelling speeds.

The vessels carry communications devices called transponders that send radio signals identifying themselves.

“Fishing had continued in the area potentially polluted by the Sanchi spill, and the Chinese government didn’t close fisheries until very recently,” said Prof Richard Steiner, a noted marine scientist who has helped governments with his oil-spill management expertise in the past.

In an email to the Chinese government after the Sanchi spill, he had suggested: You should immediately close all fisheries in the region of the spill, as you do not want any contaminated fishery products entering the consumer market.

“They responded to my other suggestions but not directly to this one,” he said.

The findings of Global Fishing Watch, another international organisation monitoring fishing vessels, are also similar.

“We looked at fishing activity detected by GFW as measured in hours of activity, after the Sanchi collision happened on 6 January, and compared to the same time period the previous year,” Paul Woods of GFW told the BBC.

“Overall, I would say that this analysis suggests that the aggregate level of fishing activity in the region before and after the event did not change dramatically.”

According to China’s state-run media, Xinhua, the government’s move to keep fishing vessels away came two days after Sanchi sank – that was 10 days after the collision.

“The Shanghai marine search and rescue centre dispatched 13 vessels on Tuesday (January 16) to tackle follow-up issues, maintain order at the site, evacuate nearby merchant and fishing ships, and issue navigational warnings in both Chinese and English,” it reported on 17 January.

International oil spill experts say that intervention was too slow.

“Going by the pictures we saw, a lot of condensate had already started spilling from the Sanchi soon after it collided with another ship,” said Prof Steiner.

“If we had a 1 knot current over the site for eight days, then pollution from the event could conceivably have travelled in the subsurface plume as far as 200 miles away, downstream,” he said in the email to China’s State Oceanic Administration.

The New York Times has reported that officials in Beijing announced on 1 February that samples of fish taken within four to five nautical miles of the sunken ship contained traces of petroleum hydrocarbons, suggesting possible condensate contamination.

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AFP/Transport Ministry of China

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The Chinese government has been releasing toxicity levels from samples of sea water

“In any spill event, fuel oil will produce damage on the shore, whilst light oil like kerosene and petrol will have much more impact on marine species because of the persistence in the water column,” said Dr Corina Ciocan, a marine biologist with the University of Brighton.

“Molluscs and other filter feeding and sessile organisms are particularly affected by oil spills, as well as caged fish or coral fish – those are able to absorb high quantities of petroleum hydrocarbons present within their limited territory.”

Experts say the closure of fisheries is one of the first steps authorities take after major oil spills.

“This was something done immediately after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill incident in 2010,” said Chris Reddy, a senior scientist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US.

Mr Reddy however believes the oil spill in the East China Sea will be killing sea creatures as an immediate effect but there is no long-term seafood contamination risk.

“That is because the condensate spilled will soon be diluted by cleaner seawater, eaten by microbes, or evaporate which means there will be no concentration of chemicals threatening to contaminate the seafood,” he said.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN did not make any comment when asked whether seafood from the impacted region could already be reaching consumer markets.

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Wildlife secrets of Nigeria’s last wilderness

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Chester Zoo

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The Nigeria-Cameroon chimp is confined to remote pockets of forest

The world’s rarest chimpanzee has been captured on camera in the remote forests of Nigeria.

The Nigeria-Cameroon chimp was seen at various locations within Gashaka Gumti National Park, raising hopes for its future survival.

Conservationists also recorded the first sighting in the country of a giant pangolin.

The park is regarded as a national treasure, but its wildlife is under threat from pressures such as poaching.

Media captionWatch the animals captured by hidden cameras

Researchers from Chester Zoo, working with the Nigeria National Park Service, surveyed over 1,000 square kilometres of the national park.

Known for its mountain rainforests, savannah woodlands and rolling grasslands, it is home to some of West Africa’s most endangered animals.

The cameras spotted some animals that have never been recorded before in the area and others, like chimps, which are rarely seen.

Stuart Nixon, the Africa Field Programme Co-ordinator at Chester Zoo, said confirmation of the locations of chimps was an important discovery.

“Gashaka’s been regarded for many years as having the biggest population of this Nigeria-Cameroon chimp, which is the rarest chimp subspecies,” he said.

“We consider it the most important population – that’s really why we need to count it and see what the status of the chimp is right now – that will ultimately affect what we know about this subspecies elsewhere.”

Forgotten wilderness

The chimp is endangered across its range in Cameroon and Nigeria. Its total population is down to fewer than 9,000 individuals, of which about 1,000 are thought to live within the borders of the national park.

The ape faces many threats, from illegal poaching for bushmeat and traditional medicines to loss of habitat.

Wildlife experts are exploring new areas of the park to get a better idea of numbers, as there have been no population surveys for 20 years.

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Chester Zoo

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The giant pangolin is vulnerable to poaching

The cameras captured more than 50,000 images of the park’s wildlife between 2015 and the end of 2017.

“It’s an incredible tool to use these camera traps and to reveal that this park – which is a forgotten wilderness, really, for Nigeria – still has a really important reservoir of important species for Nigeria and Africa in general,” said Stuart Nixon.

The researchers were surprised to spot a giant pangolin, which is one of the rarest and least known of the six species.

The scaled mammals are poached for their scales, which are used in traditional medicine, and their meat.

“No-one’s seen a giant pangolin – no-one even knew that they were there,” said Stuart Nixon. “It’s the first record for Nigeria as well – that highlights how rare, how elusive and how difficult they are to find and study.”

Camera traps also found the first photographic evidence of leopards, which may make up one of the most significant populations in West Africa.

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Chester Zoo

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Leopards are notoriously secretive

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Chester Zoo

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The African golden cat lives in the forests of equatorial Africa

The African golden cat was also seen on images.

“It’s likely that it’s the only significant population of the golden cat left in Nigeria,” said Stuart Nixon. “Very elusive, very little known, there’s not been many studies on them at all.”

Chester Zoo has been supporting Gashaka Gumti National Park for more than 20 years, intensifying their efforts recently to address growing threats to the park’s wildlife.

The wildlife within the park is officially protected but some animals are at risk of poaching. Chester Zoo is funding patrols for the rangers and providing training in wildlife monitoring and protection.

Yohanna Saidu of the Nigerian Park service and chief warden of Gashaka Gumti National Park said there were few places in Africa that can rival its spectacular beauty.

“But it survives barely known by the international community and under increasing threat,” he said.

“This work is helping us learn more about the secrets of one of our last wilderness areas and we must continue to work together to ensure its survival for future generations.

“If all this beauty were lost it would be a terrible tragedy for all.”

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World’s fishing fleets mapped from orbit

Global map

It’s another demonstration of the power of Big Data – of mining a huge batch of statistics to see patterns of behaviour that were simply not apparent before.

Computers have crunched 22 billion identification messages transmitted by sea-going vessels to map fishing activity around the globe.

The analysis reveals that more than 55% of the world’s oceans are subject to industrial exploitation.

By area, fishing’s footprint is now over four times that of agriculture.

That’s an astonishing observation given that fisheries provide only 1.2% of global caloric production for human food consumption.

The investigation shows clearly that the biggest influences on this activity are not environmental – whether it is summer or winter, or whether there is an El Niño or fish are migrating, for example.

Rather, the major controlling factors are very largely political and cultural.

“You’d think that fishing activity would follow some natural pulse of the seasons, but in fact that’s secondary to whether it’s a weekend or not, or whether there’s a moratorium, or a public holiday,” says David Kroodsma from Global Fishing Watch, which led the study published in Science Magazine.

“Because fishing is an industrial activity tied to politics and culture, this is actually a positive message because it shows we have a lot of human agency in the way we fish the oceans, and it’s entirely within our power to change things,” he told BBC News.

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Kroodsma and colleagues have been playing with the data coming from the transponders that all large vessels are now mandated to carry.

This Automatic Identification System (AIS) means each boat will push out information every few seconds about its position, course, and speed.

These messages can be detected from space by satellites, and recent years have seen increasing numbers of spacecraft launched just to track what’s happening on the high seas.

Kroodsma’s team looked at the data from 2012 to 2016. It encompasses the messages from over 70,000 vessels. That’s far too many boats and too much data for individuals to comb through. So, the team has trained algorithms to do the work instead – to recognise in the movement of the vessels behaviours such as whether they actually have gear in the water and what sort of gear that might be. Nets or longlines, for example.

The team is able to produce “heat maps” to illustrate where fishing activity is most intense – such as in the northeast Atlantic and northwest Pacific, as well as in nutrient-rich regions off South America and West Africa.

Remarkably, it is the fleets from just five countries (China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea) that account for more than 85% of observed fishing effort on the high seas, ie away from their exclusive economic zones.

The team says that over the course of the study period, the analysis recorded over 37 million hours of fishing.

In that time, vessels consumed 20 billion kilowatt hours of energy and travelled a total of more than 460 million kilometres.

That’s 600 times the distance to the Moon and back.

Longline fishing in the open ocean, for species such as tuna, shark and billfish, was the most widespread activity globally, detected in 45% of the ocean.

“What’s most exciting is what comes next,” says David Kroodsma.

“We can now ask questions that we have the data to answer. Where are different species at risk because of bycatch? Because you can now see the overlap between species’ ranges and fishing effort.

“Or, how do subsidies affect fishing? Or, do fisherman respond more to [fuel] prices than to some type of regulation?

“Or, what parts of the ocean need more protection? We can now have much more informed discussion.”

What the team has produced is not a complete picture simply because AIS is not on every boat. The smallest vessels do not have to carry it, and of course for those that do – but wish to hide their illegal activity – they can switch it off.

But the analysis captures the majority of activity, and on the high seas, where only the largest vessels operate, it is probably missing very little.

Commenting on the study, Elvira Poloczanska, from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, said AIS had become a powerful new tool.

“Emerging applications of AIS data include fleet and cargo tracking, national fishing fleet monitoring, and maritime security,” she told Science Magazine.

“For example, AIS data is yielding information on maritime trade routes and shipping corridors and on trade flows for decision-making, enabling assessments of the contribution of ship exhaust emissions to air pollution, and allowing reduced fishing activity in the exclusive economic zones of many island states – information relevant to conservation planning.”

Global Fishing Watch has all the data from the study available for download. It can also be accessed through the Google Earth Engine.

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