A Wired Ocean? How Big Data Is Saving Marine Predators

2016-06-28T19:37:08+00:00 November 18, 2013|
 Dr. Taylor Chapple of Stanford University deploying an acoustic detection buoy, enabling real-time access to the presence of tagged white sharks along the central coast of California (Credit: Image courtesy of TOPP

(Click to enlarge) Dr. Taylor Chapple of Stanford University deploying an acoustic detection buoy, enabling real-time access to the presence of tagged white sharks along the central coast of California (Credit: Image courtesy of TOPP)

Just off the coast of Northern California is a “Blue Serengeti,” a hot spot for migrating marine predators similar to a watering hole on the African Plains. Like the rain-ripened grass in Africa, this area of the Pacific Ocean offers a seasonal food source when spring winds create an upwelling of deeper waters rich in marine nutrients.

(From Forbes / by Lisa Wirthman) — Come summer, leatherback turtles arrive from Indonesia, shearwaters from New Zealand, bluefin tuna from Japan and sharks from the subtropical gyre–all to feast on the ocean buffet. “For a period of time, this becomes the hottest lunch spot on the North Pacific Highway,” says Barbara Block, a leading marine biologist at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station.

Scientists owe the discovery of this Blue Serengeti to a deep dive–not through salt water, but through massive amounts of data collected from the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) project, part of a 10-year Census of Marine Life.

The project tagged more than 5,000 marine animals across 23 species, with help from over 80 scientists in five countries. “By tagging everything simultaneously, we were able to reveal that there is a seasonal pulse to the presence of the animals,” says Block.

The ability to census and track marine life is critical to answering some of the most basic questions about life under the sea. How many marine animals are there? Where do they live? And what happens to the marine ecosystem when large predators like bluefin tuna and sharks are overfished?

“We don’t know the basics about our oceans that cover two thirds of the earth,” says Block. Marine scientists are probably 30 to 50 years behind their land counterparts, she says. And it’s only due to the creation of mobile chips in the last 20 years that they’re catching up at all. The same technologies that power over one billion smartphones on land are now used in tags that ride on marine animals to collect ocean data such as depth, temperature and light.

Collecting and managing that data is no easy task. While tags on dorsal fins of sharks can transmit radio signals to earth-orbiting satellites, submerged gill-breathers like bluefin tuna are a different story. Radio waves don’t travel well through water, so scientists developed a tag that measures light, and uses sunrise and sunset data to calculate distances from the Greenwich Meridian.

Researchers had to integrate data from seven different types of tags, each with its own unique data stream in a slightly different language, says Block. They also combined data from the satellite tags with acoustic data gathered from smart buoys and robotic wave gliders that “listen” for tagged animals swimming nearby.

Like their corporate counterparts, the scientists have to find ways to present the data in compelling visual displays, such as maps that show migratory routes and hot spots where animals gather. Spending on big data technologies and services to meet similar needs will reach nearly $20 billion in 2016, according to the International Data Corp (IDC).

Another common business problem the scientists face is how to make their data accessible on mobile devices to increase public awareness of their findings. As a start, Block’s team created a free Shark Net app that tracks the activity of 25 different Great White Sharks.

Block’s next project is to use big data to create a “wired ocean” that enables real-time protection of sharks, tuna and other marine animals. She hopes to combine live streaming data from satellite and acoustic tags to create a listening network that provides instantaneous data on their locations.

The first step: deploying five buoys around the Blue Serengeti this fall that will monitor the presence of sharks. Block hopes to use such data to make a case for turning the area into a protected Marine World Heritage site, like the Great Barrier Reef.

“If there’s a legacy project after all this tagging it’s that we can save the coast of North America before it’s too late, and build a constituency of people interested in protecting these very special hot spots,” she says.

The need for long-term monitoring in the ocean is critical, not just for saving the Blue Serengeti, but also for long-term fisheries management, says Block. For a warning tale, ocean scientists need look no further than the Gulf of Maine, where the fish stock is so depleted that an advisory council voted for a 77% cut in the amount of cod that fishermen could catch this year.

“It causes a whole tipping of the ecosystem,” says Block. And not just for marine life–the loss of human jobs impacts entire seaside communities sustained by fishing.

Historically, fish counts came from records of human catches, says Block. A future goal is using predictive data technologies to forecast where fish are actually gathering to create more dynamic management of international fisheries.

Monitoring changes to marine ecosystems can also help manage climate change. Our capacity to breathe oxygen comes from the ocean, which buffers CO2 from the atmosphere, says Block. But rising carbon emissions are increasing the ocean’s acidity. Some of the same sensors used to track marine animals can also be used to gather data for ocean warming models, such as the sea’s temperature, salinity and oxygen levels.

“What will help us better understand the planet’s condition is to better understand what’s underneath two-thirds of it, which is covered by water,” says Block. Her team tackled the first challenge by finding unique ways to collect data underwater: tagged animals, stationary smart buoys and mobile wave gliders.

The next frontier will rely on data analytics to integrate big data streams from these disparate sources and model solutions to problems ranging from conservation to climate change. “We can’t leave and go to Mars ,” says Block. “This is our one home. There’s no going back.”