Thousands of marine animals, from fish to birds to polar bears, could be tracked under a $150 million conservation project using technology perfected for supermarket checkouts, scientists announced at a tagging conference being held this week.
The Ocean Tracking Network will be based on electronic tags implanted into creatures such as salmon, tuna, sharks, sturgeon, penguins or polar bears to register their movements via satellite or acoustic receivers on the floors of the oceans.
“Today we know less about our marine life — how these animals live, where they go — than we know about the back side of the moon,” Ron O’Dor, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, said in a statement announcing the network.
“Revolutionary new technologies open the path not just to smarter fisheries management, to better sea life conservation measures, and to the potential of abundant and sustainable stocks of commercial fish, they will also provide scientists with a massive increase in observations of rapidly shifting marine conditions in this era of climate change,” added O’Dor, who will head the project.
Prioritizing species, areas
The tagging conference, held at the Dalhousie campus in Halifax, will start setting priority species for and priority areas for creating ocean floor acoustic monitoring arrays.
“These are key questions: which species do we want to track and exactly where do we wire up the world to create an effective global system of watching the oceans in motion,” O’Dor stated.
Tagging of marine life is now limited to regional projects. An expansion of two existing projects within the global Census of Marine Life initiative, the network could give insights into wider ocean migrations and the impacts of overfishing or climate change, helping governments manage dwindling stocks.
But the project still needs funds to set up listening station arrays in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Indian oceans and the Mediterranean sea.
The scientists are applying for $32 million from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to gain tracking technology. That funding is a condition to unlock a total $150 million for the six-year project from other donors around the world.
Implants and arrays
The implants vary from the size of an almond to an AA battery. When fish pass an array, the implants set off a signal similar to a bar code scanner in a supermarket. Bigger implants can transmit via satellite from creatures that often surface.
Scientists have only recently discovered the vast distances swum by many species. Tuna can criss-cross the Pacific, great white sharks swim from Africa to Australia and turtles from Central America have been found off Easter Island.
The network would build on an existing 1,087-mile-long acoustic array on the seabed from Oregon to Alaska that has helped scientists track salmon migrating from U.S. and Canadian rivers.
Other scientists have surgically implanted bigger devices on species including whales, tuna, sturgeon, halibut and sharks.
Climate change science
“Part of the beauty of the system is that it not only records the pathways of the animals but measures the temperature,” O’Dor told Reuters. “We can build up a record of climate change.”
Fish migrations may already be shifting in response to a warming of the oceans widely blamed on a build-up of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. Salmon have been caught north of both Canada and Alaska, far from their normal ranges.
Barbara Block, a Stanford University professor who directs another pilot project in the Pacific, described the tagged fish as researchers in their own right.
“Tiny microprocessors and sophisticated remote sensing systems now make it possible for scientists to explore the vast reaches of the open ocean from the perspective of the marine animals,” she stated. Their “extraordinary travels make them highly effective ‘oceanographers’.”