It’s World Wildlife Conservation Day, but what does that actually entail? The international observance aims to address the threats faced by all wildlife due to habitat destruction, climate change, poaching and other anthropogenic impacts. While ACUA doesn’t operate in the terrestrial environment, there’s plenty of things we can do to positively contribute to the sustainable management and protection of the marine environment. Another big part of protecting wildlife stems from understanding and educating stakeholders about it.
Image credit: Sol Milne
Consider coral reefs and kelp forests quietly shielding coastlines from storm surges that could otherwise inundate them. Root systems playing a crucial role in preventing erosion and nutrient runoff into the sea during rising waters. Seagrass and bivalve beds acting as natural filters, absorbing excess nutrients from sources like agriculture and sewage, and safeguarding marine ecosystems from the adverse effects of rapid plant growth, known as eutrophication. All happening out of sight and mind.
Much like engineering, nature has a litany of failsafes and trigger mechanisms. These set off a decentralised cascade of processes, defending the ecosystem and its sustaining systems. However, the challenge lies in deciphering the intricate schematic of these systems, which is orders of magnitude more complex than a circuit board or clockwork. Each cog in the ecosystem's mechanics results from the ceaseless efforts of species collaborating with the environment, other species, and the laws of physics. The greater the diversity of species within a habitat, the more resilient it is to change. Conversely, a reduction in species diversity makes the ecosystem more vulnerable. To monitor this effectively, we first need to understand it.
Image credit: Sol Milne
Ecologists study the interactions between species to comprehend how ecosystems function. In terrestrial ecosystems like forests, researchers can observe and study interactions, such as those between pollinators and flowering tree species, through persistence and creative sampling methods. However, studying marine ecosystems presents unique challenges due to our inability to breathe underwater or see clearly in it. This necessitates the use of various techniques and technologies to extend our exploration beneath the surface and continue data collection upon returning to land.
To safeguard the marine environment, obtaining accurate and comprehensive information is paramount. “You cannot monitor what you cannot measure.” Understanding the complexity of these ecosystems and the impact of human activity requires detailed data collection at a large scale with high resolution. To that end, ACUA Ocean's mission is simple: to streamline this information-gathering process in coastal waters and the open ocean. Our approach involves using long-range Uncrewed Surface Vehicles (USVs) capable of collecting data on marine ecosystems and the diverse marine species navigating the water column. Using this approach, we aim to be as all-encompassing as possible, to effectively measure and monitor the marine environment.
Among many things, we are focused on collecting data from the seafloor itself, using GeoSwath, an interferometric sonar from GeoAcoustics. This fine grained data collection will be used to not only develop a clear model of the benthic environment but also the presence of vegetation such as seagrass and kelp that are the basis of this ecosystem. Passive acoustic monitoring techniques will be applied, to unobtrusively determine the presence of marine mammal life present in survey locations. In addition we are collecting information on marine chemical data, through a stack of chemical sensors monitoring dissolved nutrients such as phosphate, nitrate, the presence of marine algae and dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide. Through this array of sensors we aim to study the activity in the water column, from the seafloor to the ocean-atmosphere interface, the study of which is so vital for monitoring anthropogenic impacts.
While the information collected can have many applications, it will primarily be used to develop a marine natural capital assessment, to determine the monetary value of these habitats and ecosystem services. “Why?” would be a perfectly valid question, “is acknowledging they’re important not enough?”. These systems have an intrinsic value, based on the species present in these systems, however regional and state-level decisions for protection are often built around the revenue brought by these ecosystems to the economy. By analysing the extent of habitats and diversity of species present within them, cost-benefit analyses can also be put in place, to develop conservation strategies for their protection and long-term sustainability.
Image credit: Liberty Denman
The value of biodiversity is wide-reaching and easily underestimated. Our approach therefore is to be as wide-reaching as possible in our assessment of marine habitats using a holistic sensor array, and ecological expertise in marine ecosystems. Wildlife needs protection and study, through environmentally and economically sustainable means. ACUA Ocean aims to develop this niche through the use of long-range, hydrogen powered USVs, for deployment in regions of interest, to both study and protect marine habitats and the life they harbour.