Tracking sharks with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise
22 January 2013 | Article
Barbara Block, a renowned marine scientist received a 2012 Rolex Award for Enterprise. Her award will be used to monitor the activity of sharks off the coast of California and increase public awareness of the marine environment.
Barbara Block has been studying the ocean for more than 30 years. Between 2000 and 2010 she was co-chief scientist for the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) programme and part of the Census of Marine Life. The information from these projects identified “hotspots” in the ocean off the coast of California where upwelling currents in the California Current during spring provide nutrients that cause plankton blooms which in turn attract fish and large marine predators such as sharks.
Today, Barbara is monitoring these “hotspots” by creating a network of monitoring stations that track sharks tagged with acoustic tags and transmit data to a lab via satellites. Two types of monitoring stations are used in the project; fixed buoys and a free-roaming device called a Wave Glider, whose movement is powered by wave action. The fixed buoys are located in areas popular with sharks and tuna that Barbara describes as “predator cafes” while the mobile surfboard shaped Wave Glider can monitor areas beyond the reach of the fixed buoys.
Barbara will use her Rolex Award to fund the construction, testing and deployment of three listening buoys that will be located in marine sanctuaries at three California hotspots. Each time a tagged shark swims within half a kilometer of a buoy its presence will be detected and the information will be sent not only to Barbara’s laboratory but also to ordinary citizens across the world that have downloaded the new Shark Net app.
The Shark Net app forms an integral part of Barbara’s latest project. Delivering videos of shark tagging, data, maps and other information straight to a person’s iPad or iPhone, the app allows the general public to engage and learn more about the ocean and the species many people seldom see. To Barbara, engagement with these marine animals is key if people are to understand why they need to be protected.
The Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias), listed as Vulnerable on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, is the focus of this tagging project and the data collected by monitoring stations at “predator cafes” will allow scientists and conservationists to understand the Great White Shark’s migration patterns. Over time this information will provide data on changes in the marine environment and give an indication of how healthy our oceans are.
Overexploitation is one of the most harmful threats to the marine environment and the impacts of removing its top predators has a cascading impact on the rest of the marine food web that can affect not only the balance of species living in the ocean but the services, such as food and livelihoods, they provide to humans. Barbara’s ultimate goal is to create a large marine UNESCO World Heritage site off the California coast that will protect the ocean and its inhabitants and the information collected by her project will help identify the key places needing protection.
Applications for the 2014 Rolex Awards for Enterprise are now open and are exclusively devoted to young candidates aged between 18 and 30 years. For more information visit the Rolex Awards website.