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Tracking network project launched to help monitor our oceans

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The OTN receivers will complement existing receiver arrays owned by independent researchers that are currently working on the movement patterns of species such as white sharks, ragged tooth sharks, dusky kob, leervis (garrick) and white steenbras.
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Partners in ocean tracking and monitoring. From left: Dr Tommy Bornman, Manager, SAEON Elwandle Node, Dr Paul Cowley, Principal Scientist at SAIAB and Dr Frederick Whoriskey, Research Scientist and Executive Director of the OTN (Picture: Mitzi du Plessis)
 
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SAIAB’s Dr Paul Cowley (left) and OTN’s Dr Frederick Whoriskey exchange flags during the launch to symbolise the collaborative agreement between South Africa and Canada (Picture: Mitzi du Plessis)
 

The survival of marine life is becoming increasingly uncertain due to overfishing and changing migration patterns. Oceans are becoming warmer; the polar ice caps are melting.

The alarming thing is that we don't really know why. Information from beneath the sea's surface is very limited, despite the fact that continued human survival is directly linked to stable oceanic life.

SAEON scientists are now participating in a global network of marine scientists who are pooling their research efforts to learn more about the lives of underwater creatures. The Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) project will electronically tag thousands of marine animals with the aim of demystifying their migration patterns and providing answers to global problems such as disappearing fish stocks and climate change.

The OTN project is a Canadian initiative based at Dalhousie University in Halifax and involves scientists working in all five of the world’s oceans. This $168-million conservation mega-project is funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation-International Joint Ventures Fund, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

SAEON’s sentinel site in Algoa Bay will be one of the OTN core sites in South African waters.

In South Africa, the OTN has partnered with the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), the host organisation of SAEON’s Elwandle Node. A Memorandum of Agreement between the OTN and SAIAB has tasked SAIAB with facilitating this project in South African waters. SAIAB will be responsible for deploying and servicing the OTN receivers and providing administrative and data management services. Further information on the OTN is available at http://oceantrackingnetwork.org/AR_2010-2011.pdf

The South African leg of the project was launched in Pretoria on August 2. Dr Frederick Whoriskey, Research Scientist and Executive Director of the OTN and Dr Paul Cowley, Principal Scientist at SAIAB and Chairman of the South African Biotelemetry Research Group, introduced the project during the launch.

“Our oceans are under stress from massive environmental changes, and these are poorly understood,” Dr Whoriskey said at the launch. “The OTN project collects and yields data that will enable scientists to improve their predictive capacity of the impact that stressors such as climate change will have on our oceans.”

“Listening curtain”

A range of fish species and possibly other marine animals like turtles will be tagged with acoustic transmitters (coded pingers) and their whereabouts monitored by a network of receivers that will be strategically placed around the South African coastline, starting in Mossel Bay and Algoa Bay. The receivers will effectively create a “listening curtain” that will log tagged animals as they swim by. Later deployments will also take place in False Bay and several other strategic sites along the south east coast into KwaZulu-Natal. It is hoped that the project might expand to neighbouring coastal countries.

The OTN receivers will complement existing receiver arrays owned by independent researchers that are currently working on the movement patterns of species such as white sharks, ragged tooth sharks, dusky kob, leervis (garrick) and white steenbras.

In addition to the movement data obtained from tagged animals, many of the study sites are also subject to oceanographic monitoring. For example, a host of temperature probes and other logging instrumentation are moored in Algoa Bay, SAEON’s sentinel long-term monitoring site. Consequently, the prospects of gaining a better understanding of the causes for observed movement patterns and potential climate change impacts will also become a reality.

The deployment of OTN receivers will greatly improve the “listening” capabilities in South Africa and shed light on the long-shore movements and migrations of studied animals. In particular, significant insights will be gained on the “ greatest shoal on earth”. It is known that the magnitude of the sardine run is influenced by environmental conditions; hence, a warming sea may have catastrophic consequences for a host of predators that depend on this annual migration. Many important fishery species rely on this migrating food resource to reach their spawning grounds off KwaZulu-Natal and the livelihoods of many commercial fishers will also be affected if climate change affects these spawning events.

Bleeding-edge of technology

“We’re on the bleeding-edge of technology, doing things no one has ever done before,” Dr Whoriskey said, adding that the threat to our oceans is a global problem that requires a global solution. Collaboration not only reduces costs, but assists global scientists to develop common databases.

He said it was an honour and a privilege for OTN to join forces with South Africa for a number of reasons: South African scientists, who are world leaders in this field; the far-sighted nature of South Africa’s science policy; and well-equipped national research facilities such as SAIAB and SAEON.

In his speech Dr Paul Cowley said that SAIAB welcomed the collaboration with OTN. Although SAIAB and SAEON scientists had already been using telemetry in their monitoring projects, the studies were in isolation, and they would greatly benefit from an expanded acoustic telemetry network. This would enhance the capacity of South African scientists to better understand phenomena like the long-shore migration, for example.

Dr Cowley said that SAEON’s sentinel site in Algoa Bay would be one of the OTN core sites in South African waters.

Watch the OTN video: http://oceantrackingnetwork.org/media/video2.html

What fish and marine animal species can be tagged sonically?
  • 75% of all bony fishes
  • 100% of sharks and other top predators
  • 50% of squid
  • All jellyfish
  • All sea turtles
  • All marine animals

Related content:

A guide to understanding the physical oceanographic processes of Algoa Bay

Building capacity for the WIO and Agulhas Current Observing System

 

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