Undersea sensors open new frontier for marine science. Can they save fisheries, too?

Fred Krupp

You can’t manage what you can’t measure – true in business and true in environmental protection.

Fortunately, what can and can’t be measured is changing fast, thanks to a new generation of sophisticated sensors combined with powerful data analytics. They’re giving people the power to see and track the invisible like never before.

Nowhere is this trend advancing more rapidly than in the oceans, which cover 71 percent of our planet.

Next-generation sensors – including robots and drones in a wide variety of shapes and sizes that sail through the seas – are collecting information on everything from salinity, oxygen levels and temperature to seismic tremors, undersea volcanic eruptions and even the abundance of schooling fish.

This sophisticated technology can help us make smarter decisions as we work to improve ocean health and the communities, large and small, that depend on oceans – while we’re also learning to better use the data that already exists.

Ocean observatories transmit real-time data

My organization, Environmental Defense Fund, is guided by science and technological innovation. Twice a year, we select a cutting-edge topic and convene experts to brief us on the latest advances, with a recent “science day” being devoted to advances in sensor technology.

John Delaney, a professor of oceanography at the University of Washington and one of the presenters that day, is a world authority on how to collect ocean data. He has spearheaded the development of an impressive network of sensors linked by fiber-optic cable that stretches for 300 miles across the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate in the Northeast Pacific.

Sensors traverse ocean depths humans can’t reach.

Once built out to cover the global ocean and complemented with mobile robots mapping habitats and counting fish, this sensor network will create a virtual underwater observatory. It can track what happens below the seafloor, on the seafloor, in the ocean and where the ocean intersects with the air.

This observatory will advance our scientific understanding of a resource on which an estimated 3 billion people depend for protein, and maybe one day help transform struggling fisheries worldwide.

Fishermen worldwide can benefit

An international web of 38 million fishermen and women in communities big and small make up the wild fishing sector today, contributing more than $270 billion to global gross domestic product. 

Because they produce relatively small revenues individually, however, governments won’t typically invest in expensive data collection programs to track their business. As a result, many of these fisheries are poorly known and mostly unmanaged, depleting fish populations and leading to low yields and profits.

Fishermen making the best use of low-cost information creates the potential for tremendous improvements in ocean health. 

EDF and our partners are overcoming this data limitation by promoting the use of analytical and interpretation methods that make the most of whatever data exists, or can be readily collected by fishermen themselves. Creating a stake in improved future fisheries also helps to repay their investment in such data.

Taken together, cutting-edge technology and new partnerships with fishermen making the best use of low-cost information creates the potential for tremendous improvements in ocean health. By harvesting smarter, not harder, we can increase yields, incomes and fish populations all at the same time.

From the moon to the bottom of the sea

More and better data is an important piece of the puzzle, and the emergence of a new generation of ocean sensor technologies that are inexpensive and easy to operate could be a key to unlocking the full potential of the world’s fisheries.

Let’s put ocean sensor pioneers in the same room as the practitioners who are trying to save the ocean and improve human welfare, but need more data to do their jobs. Working arm-in-arm with fishermen, we can steer the technology to making a real contribution in meeting these needs.

We have put 12 people on the moon, four times as many as have visited the deepest reaches of the Marianas Trench. Realizing the promise of the ocean frontier is also within our grasp.