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New technology allows scientists to monitor movements & behavior of marine life

Duke University Pratt School Of Engineering : 13 January, 2007  (Technical Article)
Emerging new technology is allowing scientists to monitor the movements and behavior of marine life over the entire vast expanses of Earth's oceans and thus improve conservation efforts. And that technology demands more expansive and cooperative ways of doing research as well as better ways to analyze the exploding amounts of information, Duke University investigators say.
'Now scientists can put tags on bluefin tuna, blue whales and wandering albatrosses and follow what they do for the entire year,' said marine mammal expert Andrew Read, an assistant professor of marine conservation biology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. 'At Duke we're putting satellite linked transmitters on three species of sea turtles. The problem now is what you do with that massive quantity of data to make the best use of it?'

Added Duke researcher Patrick Halpin, 'You have an operational oceanography community that's developing a lot of satellite remote sensing data and models.' Halpin is a Nicholas School assistant professor of the practice of landscape ecology who focuses on geospatial technologies, such as geographic information systems and satellite remote sensing.

'Biologists are collecting data from ship surveys or aerial surveys, or tagging animals and tracking them through time. But we need to merge these data together. It's very challenging and we're just beginning to develop common frameworks to analyze this dynamic ocean data in a useful manner,' said Halpin, whose laboratory specializes in using computers to overlay such information.

That seminar on 'New Approaches to Conserving Marine Animals in a Dynamic Ocean' has been organized by Larry Crowder, a Nicholas School professor of marine biology whose research includes assessing how many sea turtles inadvertently die at sea from being hooked by commercial fishermen's longlines.

Read, Halpin and Crowder lead a $1.8 million project called 'Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Animal Populations,' or SEAMAP, to create a digital archive of sea turtles, marine mammals and seabirds from throughout the world. The project is funded by the Sloan Foundation and the National Oceanographic Partnership Program.

SEAMAP is one component of an Internet data sharing network called the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, or OBIS. OBIS, in turn, is part of an even larger international Census of Marine Life project to track, collect and analyze information about all living sea animals.

'Bluefin tuna are now known to move from North Carolina to the Mediterranean,' said Read. 'How are we going to manage that? Wandering albatrosses might circumnavigate the Southern Ocean. How do we deal with the conservation of those animals and the various threats they face?

In an effort to find out, the researchers are using computerized technology available in Halpin's laboratory to plot returns from satellite tracking tags that scientists have attached to various species that swim or fly long distances. To see how many tagged sea turtles might cross the paths of commercial fishermen, for example, that information is being overlaid onto fishing patterns available from state agencies.

They are also overlaying sea surface temperature readings available by satellite. 'That's because when water temperatures drop below a certain critical threshold the turtles leave the coastal sounds,' Read said. 'And when they do that they have to run this gauntlet of fishing nets.' Air breathing turtles and marine mammals inadvertently caught by fishing nets may die after they are trapped.

Halpin said that one of the technical challenges is developing the computer tools to track tagged sea animals at the same frequency and resolution that physical scientists can use satellite information to follow how currents flow and sea temperatures change. Such correlations are important because sea temperatures and currents may strongly influence where animals move on the open water.

'We have to take a gigantic body of data developed from the physical scientists and communicate that to the biological scientists,' Halpin said.

Another challenge is convincing scientists who might be used to working alone that this new way of doing research requires more cooperative interaction, Read said. 'Some people are enthusiastic and willing to share their data. Some are less enthusiastic, but once we persuade them are willing to share their data.

'Some people are waiting to see how the whole project works out before they commit to anything. And there are some who don't buy the entire approach and want to maintain a single investigator way of working. Our argument is that won't work any more because the scales at which we're working are too large.'

Another issue is persuading the separate communities of oceanographers and marine biologists to collect information in forms that are compatible for analysis and display, added Halpin. 'By developing common analysis methods and seamless data sharing techniques we hope to help maximize the utility of existing ocean data collection for better scientific understanding and more effective ocean resource management.'
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