Blogging for World Oceans Day

Technology Can Help Pick Up the Pace to Protect Coral Reefs

WCS Fiji coral reef scientist Yashika Nand surveys the health of reef-building corals on an underwater transect. Transect lines are commonly used by coral reef scientists to record the health, abundance and diversity of coral reefs around the world. Photo credit: Emily Darling/WCS.

By Emily Darling
June 8, 2018

On June 8th, we celebrate World Oceans Day and the many ways our societies are connected to the planet’s oceans. But we also recognize the mounting threats facing our planet’s oceans and the need for new partners to find new and enduring solutions for ocean conservation. One of those partners is Silicon Valley.

As an ocean scientist, I have spent hundreds of hours below the waves studying coral reefs, the ‘rainforests of the sea.’ Reefs are an incredibly biodiverse ecosystem that support a dazzling variety of tropical corals, reef fishes, and other marine species. In the past years, the crisis of coral bleaching — the death of corals caused by climate change and rising ocean temperatures — has created a new urgency to protect coral reefs. Not just reefs but also the millions of people who rely on them for livelihoods, food security, culture and coastal protection.

Clip boards, rubber bands, and underwater paper record a coral reef survey in the Solomon Islands. Coral reef scientists use cheap and practical technology underwater. Out of the water, cutting-edge open-source technologies accelerate data to decisions for coral reef conservation. Photo credit: Emily Darling/WCS.

In 2016, I was one of many coral reef scientists who assessed the impact of the World’s Third Global Bleaching Event, which eventually would kill one-third of the Great Barrier Reef. Using SCUBA technology and breathing compressed air, we held clipboards and recorded our observations of pale, bleached and dead coral colonies. Formerly vibrant pink, purple, orange and green corals were now a sickly white, and some were succumbing to disease and overgrowth by algae.

Studying the impact of this devastating event — and finding the corals that had survived — ultimately relies on data. For example, researchers collaborating with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) counted more than 70,000 coral colonies in 13 countries in 2016, and we are using this data to identify locations where coral reefs might have the most resilience in the future.

Every year, vast amounts of data help to assess the health of coral reefs and the interconnection between reefs and people. Ultimately, these data can help us to better conserve and manage coral reefs, especially as they face a changing climate. But big data also presents big challenge for researchers.

Consider the research efforts of one year, when WCS coral reef teams in five countries interviewed hundreds of local fishers and their families, counted thousands of reef-building coral colonies, and surveyed even more thousands of coral reef fish. Multiply this effort by long-term coral reef monitoring programs in the world (over 30 years in Kenya, and over 10 years in Indonesia and Fiji), and we have a big data problem.

A citizen scientist surveys the health of a coral reef in Indonesia using a line transect. Photo credit: James Morgan / WWF.

How do we rapidly analyse these mountains of data and communicate our findings back to local stakeholders and decision makers? How do we pick up the pace and relevance of our work for coral reef conservation?

Open-source technologies from Silicon Valley offer a powerful tool for diminishing this dilemma, specifically by helping us collect and manage the tsunami of information and data faster. Conservation scientists are using coding platforms like GitHub and R to speed up how we analyze and visualize the information that decision makers rely on.

WCS Fiji scientist Yashika Nand enters survey data into the computer, under the watchful eye of an early-career scientist in the Solomon Islands. Entering survey data is tedious and prone to errors in data entry, which is why WCS and WWF scientists have teamed up to develop MERMAID, an offline-first web application to accelerate the transformation of data to decisions to save coral reefs. Photo credit: Emily Darling/WCS.

GitHub, for example, enabled WCS scientists to ‘code and cloud’ our global analysis of the 2016 coral bleaching event. Teams of scientists with SCUBA gear and clipboards monitored the impact of superheated oceans in Fiji, Solomon Islands, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, the Maldives, India, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, Mauritius, and Reunion.

We then wrote code to automatically clean, combine, and collaboratively analyse the impacts and drivers of coral reef bleaching. This is helping us both to understand new mechanisms of how temperature can trigger coral bleaching and to identify locations that may have the best conditions for future coral survival.

Community members on Kolombangara Island, Solomon Islands watch underwater videos of their coral reefs from a survey dive earlier that day, and learn about the results of a previous year’s survey from Stacy Jupiter, WCS Melanesia. Photo credit: Emily Darling/WCS.

As we continue our work into 2018 (the “International Year of the Reef”), new tools are helping conserve coral reefs around the world. For example, WCS and WWF scientists are joining forces to develop MERMAID — a Marine Ecological Research Management AID.

Using open-source technologies with GitHub, Service Workers, Docker, Amazon web services, and many others, we are working with software developers to design an online/offline web app created for marine scientists by marine scientists. The new app will enable scientists to take MERMAID with them to the field, collect data, and use the data to make rapid and effective conservation decisions.

Technology helps us accelerate the pace in protecting coral reefs, and provides crucial evidence for local communities, resource users, and national governments who make decisions about how to conserve and sustainably use their marine resources. There is still time, and there is still hope. Engaging technology and new collaborations is one way I have hope for coral reefs — and the people who depend on them — on World Oceans Day and in the years to come.

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What can you do for World Oceans Day? Learn more about how you can help protect our oceans, and our coral reefs! Support efforts across the globe to reduce plastic waste like New York City’s Give a Sip campaign to stop using single-use plastic straws. Or visit a local marine park like WCS’s New York Aquarium, where visitors are transported to Belize’s tropical corals via the facility’s Glover’s Reef exhibit.

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Dr. Emily Darling is an Associate Conservation Scientist with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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