For years, the Sea of Japan has held a grisly mystery: the bodies of hundreds of skeletal North Korean squid fishermen have washed ashore in Japan, their boats battered and drifting for months. Japanese police chalked it up to climate change and declining squid populations, but NBC News figured out the true reason, revealing through text and interactive graphics something extremely significant about the balance of power in the waters of the region.
Using new satellite data, confirmed by his own visit to the region, investigative reporter Ian Urbina discovered that China was sending a previously invisible armada of industrial boats to illegally fish in North Korean waters. The Chinese boats violently displaced the much smaller and more decrepit North Korean boats, and collected so much squid that fishing stocks declined more than 70 percent.
Working with a group of data scientists and academic researchers, Urbina was the first journalist to describe what one expert called “the largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by a single industrial fleet operating in another nation’s waters.” The fishing fleet is also in violation of U.N. sanctions that prohibit foreign fishing in North Korean waters.
Urbina’s work documented China’s willingness to use its maritime muscle in the region with impunity, noting that China has the world’s worst score when it comes to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The country’s fishing boats are famously aggressive, often armed and known for ramming competitors or foreign patrol vessels.
But his story was not just about geopolitics; it had an important human side. So many North Koreans have disappeared at sea in recent years because of the Chinese fleets that some North Korean port towns are now called “widows’ villages.” The economies of even South Korean ports have been damaged by the collapse of the squid harvests, thanks to the huge Chinese mechanized boats.
To make this complex story more accessible to readers, NBC News prepared a series of remarkable graphics to accompany it. One animated map created by national interactive journalist Jiachuan Wu, used satellite technology to show the path of Chinese vessels as they left port, sailed around the Korean peninsula, and moved into North Korean waters. Another focused on two boats in particular, documenting with precise timing when they left China, when they illegally turned off their transponders, and when they moved into the North’s waters, matched with photographic evidence of their presence.
The data analysis was done using a combination of Python and Qgis. We cleaned the coordinates data with Python and looked for the narratives through all signal points after mapping them out in Qgis. The entire 2018 Automatic Identification System(AIS) routes data is a pretty large dataset with daily entries, which is not ideal for a user’s loading experience. To improve this front-end performance, animations in the story were created using Qgis and later produced to timelapse animation. We exported for desktop and mobile users with a reasonable and legible file size. To show the reader that Chinese lighting vessels are significantly brighter than those of North Korea, we looked for a real satellite image and later compared it with a brightness data map with lighting vessels highlighted. The side-by-side real image and data map shows clearly that at same time, brighter Chinese vessels were actively fishing illegally in the NK water zone.
Urbina also collaborated with NBC video journalist Marshall Crook on a video that showed the huge fleets and the massive lights they use to attract squid, in comparison to the much smaller wooden boats used by the rural North Korean fishermen, hundreds of which have washed ashore in Japan bearing corpses.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Breaking down large datasets to tell a story in a compelling way — especially when based on a subject our readers aren’t familiar with — was a challenge in and of itself. From a visual standpoint, we wanted to convey the complex research result and methodology to the reader that the vessels detected in North Korea’s water are Chinese vessels. We were able to tell that through several datasets carrying signal coordinates and lighting positions from fishing trawlers detected by satellites. The data showed that vessels departed from China’s seaport, entering the NK water zone, fishing during the night, and eventually going back to China’s seaport. To make this clear to the reader throughout the visual, we started by showing an overview of vessels routes in 2018, along with a step-by-step visual presentation overlaying locations from satellite view and data map view for two specific vessels.
What can others learn from this project?
Not every story needs to be fully text based. Clear, comprehensive visualizations can help readers understand a complicated subject and more journalists would benefit from embracing this form of storytelling.