Humanity’s relationship with the ocean can be summed up in two words: exploration and exploitation. Together, these forces are driving a sea change in the health and future prospects of the ocean. Sustaining the energy, food, minerals and jobs that make up our Blue Economy, while at the same time conserving the ocean, has become one of our most important collective global challenges. As we rise to this challenge, embracing new science and technology for better ocean mapping and planning will be vital to conserving our marine ecosystems and the services they provide.
The ocean offers a special challenge for conservation. The high seas, which constitute more than 40% of our planet, lie outside any national jurisdiction, making it even harder to manage fish stocks, pollution and the effects of climate change. As we work toward greater international cooperation, emerging technologies can help bridge our information gaps, and, with continuous advancements and innovations, provide new tools that could make management and enforcement easier.
Take the fishing industry, for example. Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU) and bycatch pose major risks to the health of the ocean, and food security for the billions of people who rely on fish as their main source of protein. In 2016, The Nature Conservancy began partnering more closely with fishers in the Pacific island nation of Palau to test new, innovative practices to reduce bycatch (non-target species caught in fishing gear). Interventions range range from solutions as simple as modifying the shape of the hook or time of day, to on-boat electronic monitoring and data collection like our FishFace project in Australia—a winner of Google’s 2016 Impact Challenge—which aims to help fishermen assess and manage fish stocks through a facial recognition app.
Of course, translating the huge amounts of raw data collected through such tools into actionable science and compliance monitoring data poses challenges. To address this issue, we’re looking to professionals in the technology community, and have launched a competition seeking a software that can automatically detect sharks, turles and tuna, allowing for quicker analysis of the data so it can be used more effectively.
Efforts to preserve coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems, too, will benefit from new research and technologies. Our coastal systems provide invaluable services like protection from storm surges and rising seas, clean water, and beautiful tourist destinations. But thanks to new research, we can begin to actually calculate the value of those services—and thus make smarter decisions about managing them.
For example, a healthy coral reef can reduce 97% of wave energy, providing the first line of coastal defense for 63,000,000 people globally. At the same time, coral reefs drive up to $30 billion per year in global tourism revenue. Healthy reefs can also generate five to ten tons of fish per square kilometer per year—but we have to do more to care for them.
Our Reef Resilience Network brings together managers from around the world to share ideas, experiences and expertise to help build the capacity of coral reef managers and practitioners to better address the local impacts on coral reefs from climate change and other stressors. Cutting edge tools like our Atlas of Ocean Wealth data visualization software are also helping improve and increase the amount of information available to managers and decision makers, helping them to understand the full value of ocean habitats and empowering them to make informed decisions for our seas.
As technology increasingly turns its sights to the sea, marine conservation efforts stand to become better equipped to face the large-scale issues we’re seeing today.
Maria Damanaki is Global Managing Director, Oceans, at The Nature Conservancy