The evolution of tagging and tracking technology for monitoring aquatic species has become incredibly sophisticated and affordable over the past 10 years, says UWindsor researcher Nigel Hussey, but data must be shared to effectively manage and protect aquatic ecosystems.
Dr. Hussey, research associate in the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER), expressed this pressing need as lead author on the article Aquatic animal telemetry: A panoramic window into the underwater world, published recently in the journal Science. Fellow UWindsor GLIER researchers Aaron Fisk and Steven Kessel co-authored the paper, along with an international team of scientists involved in the Ocean Tracking Network, an organization that has already started archiving shared data and making it accessible.
“In order to properly manage aquatic resources on a global scale, we have to take the next steps to become a global centralized network where all of us researchers share our data,” says Hussey.
His article reviewed 1,000 research studies employing telemetry—electronic tools for remote tracking—to highlight the advances it affords in understanding the movements of aquatic species.
“Acoustic telemetry requires tagging a species with a small electronic tag,” Hussey explains. “This is accompanied by fixed receivers that are put on the seabed and become the ears of the ocean, listening for tagged animals to swim by.”
An additional technique involves using overhead satellites to collect the data, eliminating the need for fixed receivers. Hussey says that networking to share data expands the range available to researchers.
“Previously, I could successfully monitor a shark for a few months, but once it swam out of range from my receivers, it disappeared and so would my research data,” he says. “As we develop teams like the Ocean Tracking Network, I have access to a significantly larger geographic area, and I can send data back to other researchers whose tagged animals swim past my receivers.”
Improvements in technology have reduced the size of tags, allowing them to be used on smaller animals, increased the lifespan of the units, and added sensors to measure temperature, depth, fluorescence and salinity. Aquatic animals can be employed as oceanographers, Hussey says.
“These animals are swimming into remote areas in Antarctica, where we just physically couldn’t get to because of ice cover, and this has led to the re-modelling of the southern ocean circulation system from data collected by marine mammals who are just going about normal life,” he says. “By integrating and unifying all of these data sets, we can really start to ask the big questions, all to address sustainable management in the face of increasing human pressures and a changing climate.”
But first, he argues, researchers must move towards a global agreement on sharing their resources to facilitate information gathering.