World Oceans Day 2019

A New Technology to Help Protect the World’s Endangered Coral Reefs

Scientists collecting data underwater is one of the only ways to record the condition and diversity of corals and reef fish. Credit: Emily Darling/WCS

By Emily Darling
June 8, 2019

A whitetip reef shark glides towards me warily, not quite sure what to make of this guest breathing bubbles in its territory. I’m scuba diving near Ovalau Island in Fiji. Colourful hard corals blanket the reef as it slopes into the unknown. These reefs help protect the people of Ovalau from intense storms and provide livelihoods, food, and culture associated with traditional fishing practices.

Rising temperatures, overfishing, and pollution from land are weakening reefs globally. How are Fiji’s reefs being affected? Alongside other conservation scientists from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), we’re here to better understand these changes and work with local communities and governments to ensure these reefs continue to provide for future generations.

MERMAID allows offline data collection from remote field locations, and then securely syncs data to the cloud when online. Credit: Emily Darling/WCS

Each dive, we record the health of fish and corals and assess for coral bleaching — a deathly sign of rising ocean temperatures from climate change. Breathing compressed air from our SCUBA tanks, we spend hours underwater recording coral and fish observations along transect lines draped across the reefs. Our pencils are attached by rubber bands to a rusting clipboard. While low tech, these practical methods are some of the best ways that scientists can know what’s going on below the surface.

Typically, we’d next spend days or weeks painstakingly entering and reviewing our data before it can be analyzed. This involves meticulously typing in complex Latin names into Excel spreadsheets, matching these species names to other metadata and coefficients that calculate important metrics of reef health, and then analyzing trends and patterns.

“The faster we deliver data to local communities and policy makers, the faster that evidence-based decisions can support coral reef conservation and management.”

But we’re in the midst of a coral bleaching crisis and the reefs can’t wait. As scientists, must speed up how we understand and advocate for healthy coral reefs. That’s why WCS, the World Wildlife Fund, and Sparkgeo have developed MERMAID — the first online-offline data platform for coral reef monitoring.

Using MERMAID, we now easily enter our data. With a few keystrokes of unique letters, we can automatically pull up the familiar names of the corals or fishes we’ve seen out on the reef. Standard metrics of reef health — the percent of live coral or ref fish biomass — are automatically calculated, even offline. Dropdown menus help us quickly describe the reef habitat, depth, date and time of our surveys.

When back online, our data is synced to the cloud and can be exported for further analysis. By the time we return to the office, all of our data has been cleaned and backed up on MERMAID, saving us hours of time and thousands of dollars.

Once the data are submitted online, Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) allow dashboards or other applications to integrate our data in near real-time, with data sharing permissions carefully set by users. On World Oceans Day 2019, we’re releasing MERMAID Beta freely to the world, giving coral scientists a better solution to collect, manage, and share their data.

A coral reef scientist recording information underwater, which will then be transferred to MERMAID to be analysed. Credit: Emily Darling/WCS

The faster we deliver data to local communities and policy makers, the faster that evidence-based decisions can support coral reef conservation and management. For example, following our bleaching surveys this year, we will create a fact sheet with the Fijian government, and provide reports on reef condition to communities and local governments for their management plans.

“MERMAID was built for rugged field conditions, and is the first coral reef data platform designed by global coral reef scientists for global coral reef scientists.”

While technology can help us pick up the pace to save coral reefs, we can’t design technological solutions only for high-end requirements like high speed WiFi or super computer machine learning platforms for high-resolution photos or videos. We need technologies for the contexts that users work in. In developing countries, that means erratic and low-bandwidth WiFi and intermittent electricity. MERMAID was built for these rugged field conditions, and is the first coral reef data platform designed by global coral reef scientists for global coral reef scientists.

Coral reef scientists from Fiji and Indonesia participating in the first MERMAID User Summit held in December 2018. Credit; Emily Darling/WCS

We urgently need to understand the condition and resilience of reefs around the world. Last month, reefs in Western Fiji reported bleaching in up to half their corals — conjuring the heartbreaking fate of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Fortunately, we’re only seeing a few pale corals in Ovalau. Why? The highly diverse Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is exposed to open ocean and the wind, waves, and tides can push cooler waters up from canyons to help protect these reefs from bleaching. This is hopeful news, and calls for continued local management to help communities sustain their reefs and resources for future generations.

Back on the reef, I jot down the last tallies of coral colonies and look around for the whitetip shark gliding into the deep. I silently give thanks for the permission to pass through these reefs. With a kick of my fins, I head towards the surface inspired to turn the data in my hands into decisions that can ensure the long-term health of Fiji’s reefs, and coral reefs around the world.

On World Ocean’s Day, help support the open-source development of MERMAID and share MERMAID with your favorite coral reef scientists.

[ WCS’s work to develop MERMAID was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Bloomberg Philanthropies ‘ Vibrant Oceans Initiative.]

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Dr. Emily Darling is a conservation scientist with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). She has received early career scientist awards from the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution and the International Coral Reef Society, and leads WCS’s global coral reef monitoring program.