Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Technology to Help Save the Oceans

This post is part of a series on projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.   

Engineer Shah Selbe is developing ways to use technology, such as aerial drones, to address the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Photo: S. Selbe

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing presents a grave threat to the health of fisheries worldwide. It takes many forms, from failing to report catch, exceeding quotas and bycatch limits, to fishing in marine protected areas and using prohibited gear. Given the challenges of monitoring for these illegal activities in a vast ocean, the problem can seem insurmountable. However, there is hope on the horizon thanks to a concept known as FishNET, created by engineer Shah Selbe. The focus of his work is to inject innovation into ocean conservation and improve the way we monitor and protect our oceans.

As Selbe notes: “The foundation of the FishNET effort is an integrated system that completely revamps the way we handle the information about our oceans. … Imagine a system that would harness the power of a networked society to allow users to report ocean threats via the Internet, SMS text messaging, phone and mobile apps, while simultaneously incorporating a suite of observation technologies such as acoustic monitoring, inexpensive radar and unmanned vehicles. By crowdsourcing protection from all those who depend on the oceans as a means of survival, we can expand communication and observation capacity efficiently and inexpensively and prevent the tragedy of the commons.”

In recognition of the great potential for FishNET to address IUU fishing, the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) helped support Selbe’s efforts to bring this innovative concept to a wider audience. MCAF funded Selbe’s trip to Hong Kong, where he spoke about FishNET at the International Seafood Summit in September 2012. While there, Selbe connected with a diverse international audience and shared his innovative technological approach for monitoring, detecting and deterring illegal fishing. Selbe noted that the presentation at the Seafood Summit was an important step in building interest in FishNET and in making connections to help support its development.

Selbe has explored using inexpensive technology such as weather balloons
to extend the reach of radar to detect illegal fishing. Photo: S. Selbe

In May of 2013, Shah Selbe was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in recognition of the use of technology as a groundbreaking approach to ocean conservation. He has since developed various parts of this technology concept into the creation of other conservation initiatives such as MPA Guardian, a website and smartphone app to allow crowdsourced protection of California’s Marine Protected Area network. He is now working through a grant from National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions on a project called SoarOcean, creating low-cost drones to monitor Marine Protected Areas. These solutions seek to empower coastal communities and enrich information about our oceans by following two paths: cutting-edge affordable observation platforms (like low-cost conservation drones, ultra low-cost VMS, acoustic sensors, satellite imagery, mobile communications and smartphone apps) and better management and sharing of the associated data.

On the evening of April 2, 2014, the Aquarium will have the honor of hosting Shah Selbe as he speaks about his innovative and inspiring efforts to save our oceans. To register for this talk, which is part of the Aquarium Lecture Series visit us online. www.neaq.org/AquariumLectures

Learn more about Shah Selbe's work online at his website and in this National Geographic bio.

Monday, March 17, 2014

MCAF helps support a brighter future for manta rays in Peru

This post is one of a series on projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.   

Photo: M. Harding

The southeast Pacific Ocean supports a significant population of giant, oceanic manta rays (Manta birostris). These gentle giants are fully protected from harvest in Ecuador, but are highly threatened due to bycatch and overfishing in the neighboring waters of Peru. With support in part from the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF), an international team of scientists is working to change the fate of this species in Peru. The team, which includes staff from Planeta Oceano, the Manta Trust and WildAid collaborated with local fishermen and students to gather fishery landings data on mantas and their relatives, the mobula rays.

Kerstin Forsberg

Peruvian biologist Kerstin Forsberg, director of Planeta Oceano, presented the results of this research during a guest lecture at the Aquarium in the fall of 2013. Forsberg noted the team’s data showed that the majority of the captured mobula rays were juveniles and that several of the landed mantas were pregnant. Harvesting the rays before they can reproduce is not sustainable, given the already low reproductive rate of these species. Therefore, the team is using their findings to support a proposal for national protection of mantas and mobulas.

Protecting these species could prove to be a boon to the Peruvian economy. Research published last year in the journal PLOS ONE showed that over its lifetime, a live manta ray is worth up to $1 million to the tourism industry and only $40 to $500 dead. With the value of manta tourism in the global spotlight, Forsberg and Planeta Oceano are working with fishermen to build an ecotourism industry around these animals. Their pilot effort, which recently won a highly competitive award from Project Aware, will empower 10 artisanal fishermen to lead tours to view mantas in Peru. This approach will both increase the fishermen’s income and support manta ray conservation. With the steadfast efforts of manta advocates such as Kerstin Forsberg, there is hope that Peru will one day follow the lead of countries such as Ecuador, Mexico and most recently, Indonesia, in banning the targeted harvest of manta rays.

Read about Kerstin Forsberg’s visit to the Aquarium and her workshop for the Aquarium’s Marine Biologist in-Training students here.

To learn more about the efforts of Planeta Oceano to protect manta rays see Forsberg’s recent article for the Ocean Health Index.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

MCAF issues funds to protect leatherback turtles in Costa Rica

This post is the first in a series on projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.   

Nesting leatherback sea turtle

For more than 20 years, the organization WIDECAST (Wider Carribbean Sea Turtle Network) has worked tirelessly to protect sea turtles while also educating and engaging communities in their conservation efforts. Over the past few years, MCAF has supported WIDECAST with several grants for sea turtle nesting beach protection programs in Costa Rica. Most recently, MCAF helped support the continuation of WIDECAST’s vital efforts as their team worked to recover from a terrible tragedy. In May of 2013, poachers murdered one of WIDECAST’s biologists, Jairo Moira Sandoval, while he was monitoring leatherback turtle nests on Moin Beach in Costa Rica.

WIDECAST biologist Jairo Mora Sandoval was tragically killed by poachers on May 31, 2013. Photo: WIDECAST

In the aftermath of this horrible event, WIDECAST shut down operations on Moin Beach. The team was dedicated to continuing their turtle conservation work, now with police protection, on the other beaches they monitor in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, due to Jairo’s murder, more than 150 volunteers who had committed to help WIDECAST during the upcoming nesting season cancelled their plans. Volunteers play a vital role in WIDECAST’s turtle nest protection program. Without their help, many nests of highly endangered sea turtles would be vulnerable to poachers, predators and erosion. Wanting to ensure the continued protection of the turtles, WIDECAST applied to MCAF for emergency funds to hire additional staff to monitor Pacuare Beach, the most important leatherback-nesting site in Costa Rica. Recognizing WIDECAST’s urgent need, and their successful history as an MCAF grantee in 2011 and 2012, MCAF issued funding to support the continuation of their turtle conservation work.

Along with continuing to protect the turtle nests, WIDECAST has been working to effect reform in the wake of Jairo’s death. The organization wants to ensure that the Costa Rican government sustains their currently heightened focus on the security of environmental protection workers. WIDECAST and Jairo’s family are also committed to making sure that his dedication to the turtles will not be forgotten. Recently, one of Jairo’s favorite places, the Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, was renamed in his honor.

Learn more about the Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF).