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Q&A: Barbara Block, professor of marine sciences at Stanford University

Q&A: Barbara Block, professor of marine sciences at Stanford University

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On a mission to create a 'wired ocean' and an app that monitors the whereabouts of white sharks and other sea predators, California researchers are working to connect humans with ocean inhabitants. The goal: to preserve one of the wildest ecosystems left on Earth.

The ocean is largely a mystery to the typical landlubber -- even though it covers more than two-thirds of the planet. But new and innovative work aims to change that. On a mission to create a 'wired ocean' and an app that monitors the whereabouts of white sharks and other sea predators, California researchers are working to connect humans with ocean inhabitants. The goal: to preserve one of the wildest ecosystems left on Earth.

Barbara Block, a professor of marine sciences, heads up the work at Stanford University. We spoke last week about smart buoys, a shark app and how the waters off the West Coast compare to the Wild West. Below are excerpts from our interview.

Your vision is to build a 'wired ocean.' What does that mean and what would it look like?

The wired ocean is a project to establish underwater networked listening stations. We're trying to detect the presence of these mobile apex predators, such as the white shark, the salmon shark and the mako shark. We've been studying a menagerie of animals in our own backyard. What we have is a Yellowstone or Serengeti-like ecosystem. We're trying to relay information from these animals to the public. We're envisioning a development of the technology such that we can connect animals to humans. We're trying to build an awareness for the rich ecological nature of our California Current, which is something a lot of people can't relate to. It's blue open ocean. We're trying to lay the foundation for long-term monitoring. Right now, we're able to put a rover on Mars. But two-thirds of the world is ocean and we're just on the cusp setting up global ocean monitoring of our planet. This type of work we're doing, in which we're linking data from the sea to a mobile platform, is permitting us as humans to monitor these predators. We're doing things in the California Current that eventually as oceanographers we hope to do around the whole globe. Our Wave Glider and buoys for studying the water part of our planet. We've been stuck on coming up with ways to monitor what really is a challenging part of the planet to monitor.

We had a decade-long project in which we put out 4,000 tags. Those aren't the tags, in most cases, we're listening for now. We did this, the largest tagging project in history, across the Pacific. It told us there was a seasonal cycle where animals would come and go. Many animals, including sharks, come seasonally to these hotspots. They're the best lunch spots in town, but only during a period of two to three months. The satellite tags, which are very expensive, showed us exactly where the animals went. But they only last a year or two. We're trying to take advantage of the knowledge we garnered during the 10-year study to do long-term monitoring. Now that we know the hotspots, we're wiring those places using a cheap tag. This technology puts out an ID that gives the species of animal and an individual code. That's when our three different types of receivers monitor the population, so we can form better models on how many animals there are and what they're doing. We're monitoring the populations, as well as the impacts of climate change.

Describe the technology, including the Wave Glider and buoys.

The Wave Glider is an unmanned robot. It's a data-collecting mobile platform. It's traveling the ocean without a pilot. It's collecting a wide spectrum of scientific data. It's harnessing the energy of wave motion for propulsion. It has two-part architecture with a surfboard tethered to a glider. Its wing system can convert wave motion into forward thrust. It's environmentally-friendly. Its speed is about two miles per hour. It's got solar panels on top providing electricity. It can carry sensors for everything from weather to sea surface temperature. Ours is equipped with a custom-built receiver to detect the acoustic pulses coming off those tags the white sharks are wearing. One receiver is directly coupled in electrically, so you can get the data immediately in real-time. Another receiver is storing the data. We have this device harvesting wave and solar energy that's able to go long distances. Our glider is named Carey after one of my mentors, Dr. Francis G. Carey, one of the fathers of white shark research. Carey is a mobile ocean observatory listening for sharks, harnessing the motion of wave propulsion and it's now off the northern California coast.

The buoys are underwater acoustic receivers. They're collecting information about the presence of any acoustic-tagged, free-swimming animals within about 2,100 feet. The unit was specially built for the mission. It's about 26 pounds. The receiver is surrounded by a float and buoy system that colleagues put together. For years, we've been able to put down underwater listening stations. The next question is, why do you want to moor a device at the surface? The simple answer is that I wanted to know while sitting in the laboratory when a shark or a salmon or another tagged animal was swimming by. This is the first step in that process. We have acoustic-tagged animals able to swim by this moored buoy. When it detects them, the email comes within few moments of the shark swimming by. There are buoys at the surface and underwater buoys on our Shark Net app. It's the same kind of device, but it's anchored to the bottom and was there first.

The Shark Net app lets the public track the marine life in real time. Why is this public participation important?

We have this amazing ecosystem off our coast. The health of this system is important to all of us. A healthy ocean provides the food we eat. It's not as clear as it should be that we have one of the most incredible and intact ecosystems off the California coast. It's teeming with predators and life. There's a challenge going on for all top predators. They're being fished out of the sea. Sharks are being killed by the millions for their fins. We've built in protections for marine mammals, including whales and seals. But when it comes to the sharks and animals I study, they still remain relatively unprotected. Across the Pacific, it's still very much the Wild West. There's a concern that these predators could be fished out in our lifetime.

We're trying to build awareness of what's happening near our shores in the hope we can connect the public to the predators in a way that makes them more transparent. I wanted to test the concept that this electronic media that we're all fascinated with could help us reach the public. The project we've been doing for a year began with a grant from Discovery Communications and a Rolex Award for Enterprise. We're trying to come up with ways to tell the stories of California Current predators in a way that the public can interact with. We're delivering on our iPad app three different types of information. There is tracking data that shows interactions between the animals and our devices. There are details on the animals we've been studying, barcodes that tell us who's who. We've written biographies of 15 sharks. Because the sharks are charismatic and have great stories, could we get people to realize that in our backyard there's this hotspot in which white sharks are visiting us seasonally.

What's next for your work?

We're starting now with a few sharks. We want to move on to potentially tagging sea turtles and other species. The idea is to build a baseline for information on population size. We're trying to invest in long-term monitoring that will provide solutions for preserving the California Current as an ecosystem. Some of these hotspots in the California Current could qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's a higher level of recognition of the uniqueness of this ecosystem that would bring awareness to the region as being special. How can we as researchers do more to build this effective capacity to inform the policy makers and charge them with preserving this?

The No. 1 message we're trying to leave: We have one of the wildest places on Earth right off Monterey Bay and most of the people on the planet don't know about it yet. In this wild place, we have a diverse array of predators and we've been studying these animals, in some cases, for more than 20 years. This project is helping us tell the world about this place that exists right off the most populous state in the country.

Photo, top: Barbara Block and Taylor Chapple with buoy

Photo, middle: Wave Glider Carey / Courtesy of Stanford University, Tom O'Leary

Photo, bottom: Shark Net app / Courtesy of Stanford University

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure