Nature and Biodiversity

How technology can help to achieve at least 30% ocean protection

image of the ocean

Achieving 30% protection of the whole ocean means the conservation of 109 million square kilometres. Image: Unsplash/Caleb George

Simon Cripps
Executive Director of the Global Marine Program, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society)
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Nature and Biodiversity

  • A growing number of countries are pledging to protect and conserve at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.
  • Securing such a vast area requires new cutting-edge technology to monitor illegal activities and movements of species.
  • Luckily, this field has been developing fast with new inventions and tech collaborations, writes the Wildlife Conservation Society's Dr. Simon Cripps.

It is a dark, stormy night in the South Atlantic. Coastal radar picks up a boat heading out towards the edge of a country’s 200-mile limit of jurisdiction. The on-board Automatic Identification System (AIS), required by authorities to track and monitor vessel movements, tells the watching coastguard that it is a Panamanian registered industrial trawler.

As it approaches a no-take (meaning fishing is not allowed) Marine Protected Area (MPA), newly designated because of its sensitive bottom habitat, the ship’s AIS suddenly stops transmitting and the vessel goes “dark.” A call goes out to authorities responsible for fisheries protection and conservation.

Commonly, a patrol vessel—if available—would be dispatched to see what the boat was doing, but this is at night, in a storm, off an exposed coast. Is there a problem with the AIS and the boat is just transiting over the MPA? Or is there an ulterior motive and the trawler has deployed its nets to scour the seafloor, destroying the habitat and nature protected by the MPA?

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A growing number of countries due to meet at the conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) later this year have pledged to protect and conserve at least 30 percent of the ocean in a movement dubbed “30 x 30”: 30 percent by 2030. Even with those commitments, how do we manage vast areas of ocean to ensure they are providing the protection and restoration so desperately needed for our future?

The example above is hypothetical. If the boat’s goal turns out to be nefarious and the incident ends as a prosecution in court, visual evidence may be required. Sending out a boat full of rangers, police, or military all takes time, costs money, uses significant additional resources, not to mention carrying safety risks. It’s a challenge our marine protectors face across the world.

Most MPAs seek to protect critical ocean habitats and species from one or more existential or predicted threats. The vast majority of such threats, such as pollution and exploitation of nature, are human induced. For an MPA to function effectively there must be science-based monitoring of progress, management of human activities and the environment, surveillance, and enforcement of rules and regulations put into place to abate the threat and protect species and ecosystems.

To do this at scale requires significant effort. Achieving 30 percent protection and conservation of the whole ocean—both coastal and high seas—requires that we protect and conserve 109 million square kilometres (42 million square miles), an area more than 11 times the size of the entire United States.

image of the Global Fishing Watch’s map, which tracks the movements of more than 65,000 large fishing vessels in near real time.
Global Fishing Watch’s map, which tracks the movements of more than 65,000 large fishing vessels in near real time. Image: Global Fishing Watch

Securing such a vast area requires new cutting-edge technology. Luckily, this field has been developing fast: from hand-held devices for recording coral reef data, to satellite remote sensing of illegal fishing. Maritime surveillance to monitor fishing and animal movements, watch boat movements, track illegal activities, observe pollution, and keep an eye more broadly on the whole exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of a country, are all essential to ensuring that our ocean is managed sustainably.

Yet, as we move to a far greater area over which protection extends, traditional surveillance and enforcement will need to be supplemented by new advances in technology.

By combining data from a range of sources such as direct observations from other maritime operators, synthetic aperture radar, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), infra-red, acoustics, vessel monitoring systems, and real time AIS, a picture of the activities of humans or species such as whales and fish can be built up.

Let’s take the fishing vessel in the hypothetical example above that turned off its on-board monitoring system. Perhaps it slowed from a transiting speed of 12 knots down to 3 knots, the speed at which it could trawl. Was it close to whale sharks it was using to attract fish? Is it possible to get an image of the boat’s activity that could be used in court?

All this information can be picked out of a sea of noisy data. By connecting the data to existing systems that rangers or authorities use, such as the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) system, we can develop powerful tools not just for enforcement, but also for day-to-day management.

It should be stressed here that the use of monitoring and surveillance technology is not all about catching bad guys doing illegal acts. It is also about monitoring movements of species (for example, acoustic monitoring of whales) and measuring changes in habitats under different management regimes such the MERMAID crowd-sourced coral monitoring technology.

image of a boat fitted with surveillance technology
Surveillance and technology needs to be met with a sense of shared responsibility to save our oceans. Image: Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

This new tech is also useful for tracking and protecting rangers or small-scale fishers. It can build up a picture of how we use our seas so that management plans can be put in place to increase the sustainability of commercial activities.

Surveillance and enforcement with the best technology in the world does not replace the need for engagement of the people, communities, and sectors that rely upon the sea for their livelihoods. Raising awareness of the need to act legally and responsibly remains a major element of the work of organizations such as WCS.

As we work to achieve sustainable seas, protect nature, reverse biodiversity loss, and reduce the threat of climate change, we must up our game using all the tools available to us.

Those tools will include new, advanced technology. Nature conservation appears to be both keeping up and leading the way in the application of that technology to real world challenges. So as countries decide whether to move to a minimum of 30 percent protection at CBD, I say bring it on. Conservationists will be there with the latest technology to help ensure success.


This article is a commentary and the views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

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Nature and BiodiversityClimate ActionSustainable Development
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