Emerging technologies for exploration and independent monitoring of seafloor extraction in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at the 2019 Minerals, Materials, and Society Symposium at the University of Delaware in August, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I want to change tracks for a bit and scan the horizon to think about what the future of exploration and monitoring in the high seas might look like because ocean and conservation technology is in the midst of an evolutionary shift in who has access to the tools necessary to observe the deep ocean.

This is the Area. Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, International Waters, the High Seas, the Outlaw Ocean. It’s the portion of the ocean that falls outside of national EEZs and is held in trust by the UN under the Convention on the Law of the Sea as the Common Heritage of Humankind. It covers 64% of the ocean and nearly half of the total surface of the Earth. It’s also the region in which most major deep-sea mining ventures intend to operate.

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Bot meets Whale: making friends in the ocean; or how I learned to stop worrying and mitigate harmful interactions between recreational ROVs and marine mammals.

An example of a microROV system. From Thaler et al. (2019)

Today, there are more robots exploring the ocean than ever before. From autonomous ocean-crossing gliders to massive industrial remotely operated vehicles to new tools for science and exploration that open new windows into the abyss, underwater robots are giving people a change to experience the ocean like never before. The fastest growing sector of this new robotic frontier? Small, recreational, observation class ROVs.

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A global assessment of biodiversity and research effort at active Seafloor Massive Sulphides: Transcript from my talk at the International Seabed Authority.

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at a side event during Part II of the 25th Session of the International Seabed Authority in July, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

I want to change gears this afternoon and talk about a very different kind of mining. For the last two years, Diva and I have been engaged in a data mining project to discover what we can learn and what we still need to learn about biodiversity at hydrothermal vents from the 40-year history of ocean exploration in the deep sea.

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What we’ve missed in the Abyss: Mining 40 years of cruise reports for biodiversity and research effort data from deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

“When the RV Knorr set sail for the Galapagos Rift in 1977, the geologists aboard eagerly anticipated observing a deep-sea hydrothermal vent field for the first time. What they did not expect to find was life—abundant and unlike anything ever seen before. A series of dives aboard the HOV Alvin during that expedition revealed not only deep-sea hydrothermal vents but fields of clams and the towering, bright red tubeworms that would become icons of the deep sea. So unexpected was the discovery of these vibrant ecosystems that the ship carried no biological preservatives. The first specimens from the vent field that would soon be named “Garden of Eden” were fixed in vodka from the scientists’ private reserves.”

Thaler and Amon 2019

In the forty years since that first discovery, hundreds of research expedition ventured into the deep oceans to study and understand the ecology of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. In doing so, they discovered thousands of new species, unraveled the secrets of chemosynthesis, and fundamentally altered our understanding of what it means to be alive on this planet. Now, as deep-sea mining crawls slowly towards production, we must transform those discoveries into conservation and management principles to safeguard the diversity and resilience of life in the deep sea.

Biodiversity of hydrothermal vents from around the world. Top: Indian Ocean, Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Juan de Fuca Ridge. Bottom: East Pacific Rise, Southwest Pacific, Southern Ocean. Photo credits (top left to bottom right): University of Southampton; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; Ocean Networks Canada; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; Nautilus Minerals; University of Southampton.
Biodiversity of hydrothermal vents from around the world. Top: Indian Ocean, Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Juan de Fuca Ridge. Bottom: East Pacific Rise, Southwest Pacific, Southern Ocean. Photo credits (top left to bottom right): University of Southampton; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; Ocean Networks Canada; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; Nautilus Minerals; University of Southampton.

Though research at hydrothermal vents looms large in the disciplines of deep-sea science, relative to almost any terrestrial system, they are practically unexplored. Over the last 2 years, Drs. Andrew Thaler and Diva Amon have poured through every available cruise report that made a biological observation at the deep-sea hydrothermal vent to assess how disproportionate research effort shapes or perception of hydrothermal vent ecosystems and impacts how we make management decisions in the wake of a new form of anthropogenic disturbance.

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Five Questions with Irene Kingma

I spent last week in Saba in the Dutch Caribbean with the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Saba Conservation Foundation serving as a research assistant to an international team of shark scientists participating in the Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019.

Expedition leaders Irene Kingma (left) and Dr. Paddy Walker (right) decked out in the official Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 gear.

I previously wrote about some of the goals of the expedition, and our first day out on the water tagging small Caribbean reef and silky sharks.  I also interviewed several of the expedition participants on their views on sharks and shark conservation. Yesterday I posted my interview with Tadzio Bervoets. Today, I’m posting my interview with expedition lead Irene Kingma.

I first met Irene in 2014 when she invited me to give a keynote speech at the European Elasmobranch Association and have kept in touch with her through the years, mostly through Twitter.  Irene has been working in shark conservation for 15 years, both in Europe and the Caribbean.  She runs the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, which she founded together with Dr. Paddy Walker in 2010.

From 2015 to 2018 she worked as the Netherlands project lead in the Save our Sharks project of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance. This project aimed to improve all aspects of shark protection in the Dutch Caribbean through legislation, education, management, and science.  The project has ended but the Save our Sharks brand is still used for shark science and conservation work in the islands. 

Irene and Dr. James Thorburn prepare the European Space Agency tiger shark satellite tags for deployment.

I sat down with Irene and asked her five questions:

Bucky: What is your role on this expedition?

Irene: I am the expedition leader.  I’m in charge of making sure everyone knows where they have to be and what they need to do. I do this together with Dr. Walker, who took on the lead role after I left the expedition a few days before the official end. Paddy and I founded the Dutch Elasmobranch Society together in 2010, a science-based NGO dedicated to the management and protection of elasmobranchs in the Dutch Kingdom.

Bucky: How does the work you do contribute to global efforts to protect sharks?

Irene: My main job is helping policy makers to take the right decision on shark and fisheries management. For example, here in the Dutch Caribbean the Dutch Elasmobranch Society is the main adviser to the Dutch government on shark management and the measures needed to make the Yarari Shark Sanctuary a success.  Together with local partners we wrote the proposals to get several sharks and ray species listed on the SPAW protocol, the only cross border legal protection instrument for the Caribbean region.

The expedition crew works up and tags a tiger shark.

Bucky: Why are sharks important to you?

Irene: My background is in ecology, so when I think of heathy oceans that should include all parts of the ecosystem. Sharks are a really good indicator of ecosystem wellbeing; to be able to sustain healthy, diverse shark and ray populations all elements of the system need be to in good shape. We need to protect everything from the corals and to whale sharks.

Bucky: How are we going to save the world’s sharks?

Irene:   I am a firm believer in a holistic approach to management. Putting a species on a list like CITES, CMS, SPAW is an important first step. But you also need to have sensible implementation on the ground linked to effective control and enforcement. Plus, to ensure you get buy in by the people who are affected or have to carry out the protective work you need to communicate on what you want to achieve and why throughout the chain. And lastly all needs to be grounded in sound science to ensure what you do actually makes a difference in the water and for sharks. My mantra is we need to get the science we need to deliver the policy we want.  

Bucky: What advice would you give to young scientists interested in a conservation careers?

Irene: Dream big! Here I am, a girl from Amsterdam who started out as a malacologist (snail specialist) leading an expedition to one of the most interesting places in the world to start up research projects which will help us protect sharks.  Somebody pinch me! There’s no clear path that led me here, the only clear thread I see is that I tend not to take the safe option when it comes to career choices and I never gave up. 

The Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 runs from July 15-25. You can also follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Five Questions With Tadzio Bervoets

I spent last week in Saba in the Dutch Caribbean with the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Saba Conservation Foundation serving as a research assistant to an international team of shark scientists participating in the Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019. I previously wrote about some of the goals of the expedition, and our first day out on the water tagging small Caribbean reef and silky sharks.

Tadzio giving us the morning briefing before Thursday’s tagging.

I was able to reconnect with my good friend, Tadzio Bervoets. Tadzio was born and raised on the island of Sint Maarten and has worked in conservation for ten years, first as the MPA manager for the island of St. Eustatius and and today as the director of the St. Maarten Nature Foundation. In his role as director he helped to establish the Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area and was the lead for the Dutch Caribbean Save Our Shark Project .

He led the team at the Nature Foundation to push through conservation measures for all elasmobranchs, establishing a moratorium on shark fishing in 2011 and designating a shark sanctuary in 2016.

I sat down with Tadzio and asked him five questions.

Bucky: What is your role on this expedition?

Tadzio: I am the lead for the tagging exercise, focused on temporarily catching large tiger sharks so that the necessary science can be gathered from them, including the application of the new prototype European Space Agency tags.

Tadzio securing a tiger shark on our first day of tagging.

Bucky: How does the work you do contribute to global efforts to protect sharks?

Tadzio: This expedition is a direct spin-off of the DCNA Save our Shark Project which was a three-year, multi-island regional shark conservation project in which we supported shark conservation activities on all six islands of the Dutch Caribbean: Sint Maarten, Saba, St. Eustatius, Bonaire, Curacao, and Aruba. The project was centered not only on scientific research and establishing monitoring programs for the species, but also focused on policy changes concerning shark conservation as well as educational and outreach components informing us islanders on the importance of sharks to our ocean ecosystem. Based on all of these components sharks have received local protection through the establishment of the Yarari Shark Sanctuary for Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius, as well as pushing through regional conservation measures using the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocols of the Cartagena Convention for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity in the Caribbean Sea.

Bucky: Why are sharks important to you?

Tadzio: I was one of those kids obsessed with sharks and dinosaurs growing up. I soon realized that dinosaurs were quite dead, but sharks are some of the most majestic yet misunderstood creatures on earth. My childhood obsession set me along the path of becoming a marine conservationist and helped me focuss on my work to establish MPAs on St. Maarten as well as the Yarari Sanctuary and shark sanctuaries in the Dutch Caribbean.

Bucky: How are we going to save the world’s sharks?

You: By continuing fighting the good fight! Although focusing on science and policy is critical and important, the most important aspect is changing people’s perception of sharks and how important they are to the Caribbean Sea and by extension to our way of life as Caribbean People.

Bucky: What advice would you give to young islanders interested in conservation careers?

Tadzio: There is a great need for the work to be done even though you may be told otherwise. It is also important that us Caribbean people are front and center in tackling the conservation issues that we face, instead of relying on foreign researchers who may not have the affinity and connection with our own natural areas. If you are interested keep and cultivate that interest, don’t get discouraged by the artificial appearance of a lack of work in the field as this is far from the truth. Don’t be afraid to travel and intern and get experience, but please come back to our beautiful Caribbean to make sure that it remains exactly that, beautiful.

The Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 runs from July 15-25. You can also follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

A big-hearted iron snail is the first deep-sea species to be declared endangered due to seabed mining.

[Note: this article originally appeared on the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is republished here with permission.]

In 2001, on an expedition to hydrothermal vent fields in the Indian Ocean, researchers made a bizarre discovery. Clustered in small aggregations around the base of a black smoker was an unusual snail, seemingly clad in a suit of armor. Rather than a single, hard, calcareous structure, the snail’s operculum was covered in a series of tough plates. On recovery to the surface, those plates, as well as the snail’s heavy shell, began to rust. This was an Iron Snail.

Individuals from the three known populations of C. squamiferum: Kairei, Longqi, Solitaire (left to right). Chong Chen.
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Small Shark Tagging Day

We’re all smiles 5 minutes into the first day on the water.

I am in Saba in the Dutch Caribbean with the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Saba Conservation Foundation serving as a research assistant to an international team of shark scientists participating in the Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019.  Today was our first day out on the water and our objective was to catch, measure, and tag small sharks on the Saba Bank.

It’s a girl.

We caught three Caribbean reef sharks and a silky shark – the first time I’ve ever seen a silky shark (check that one off the list).  Each shark was worked up by the scientists, with data collected to serve their respective research areas.  When each shark was brought to the boat, the first observation was for sex, which we determined from the presence or absence of claspers.  And then measurements were taken for total length, fork length, caudal length, and girth.  We also took a fin clip, a muscle sample, and a blood sample.  Each shark was handled for only a few minutes, and then released back into the water.  Every shark today quickly swam away.

Guido, Jergen, Ayumi, and Walter work up a small Caribbean reef shark on the deck of the boat, with the island of Saba looming in the background.

Our island hosts Ayumi and Walter from the Saba Conservation Foundation were eseential in making today a success.  Walter drove the boat all day and Ayumi served as our expert fisher, helping us with the gear to target the species we were after.

You came for the science, but I’m showing you my fishing pictures.

We also trolled for bonito to and from the Saba Bank.  We didn’t catch any, but I handlined this barracuda, and we also caught a beautiful green mahi mahi.

Stay tuned for a few more blogs where I introduce some of the researchers and conservation practitioners participating in the expedition. You can also follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Studying Sharks in the Dutch Caribbean

On the ferry from St. Maarten to Saba with Dr. Paddy Walker of the Dutch Elasmobranch Society and Dr. James Thorburn, a shark researcher from St. Andrews University.

I’m in the Dutch Caribbean this week with a team of international researchers for an expedition to the Saba Bank to study sharks.  This endeavor has been pulled together under the leadership of the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, the Saba Conservation Foundation, and the Nature Foundation Sint Maarten.  I’m only here for five days, but the entire research trip will span from July 15 to 25.

Those of you who know me, are probably thinking, “but wait, you’re not a shark scientist!”  That is correct.  I’ve joined this expedition as a research assistant, which means I’ve signed up to carry a lot of heavy things and sing Jimmy Buffet songs with my ukulele.  My main role will be helping with communications.  I hope to share with you what we’re doing this week on this blog, and you can also follow along on social media with the hashtag #SabaShark2019.

Our expedition is based on Saba, and we’ll travel to the Saba Bank each morning to conduct shark research.

We are going to be spending most of our time out on the Saba Bank, a large submerged atoll just off the coast of the beautiful island of Saba.  We’ll be within the borders of the Saba Bank National Park, which extends across 2,680 square kilometers of ocean, an area about the size of Rhode Island.  The region is high in biodiversity, and home to sea turtles, migrating whales, and over 200 species of fish.  Researchers also think it is incredibly important for Caribbean shark species.

The scientific projects carried out during this ten-day expedition will focus on a couple of different species, including tiger sharks (YES PLEASE!!), silky sharks (there are a lot of juveniles in this part of the Caribbean, a nursery perhaps???), nurse sharks, and Caribbean reef sharks. The overall goal of the research is to gain insight into the role that Saba Bank plays in the life cycle of the species that live here, knowledge that is essential to adequately protect sharks. Four projects that will be carried this week are:

This tiger shark was tagged on a previous research expedition. Photo Credit: Duncan Brake.

Tracking tiger sharks from space. During the expedition, tiger sharks will be provided with tags equipped with a completely new satellite technology developed by the European Space Agency (ESA). The space organization has developed an advanced technology that allows the tags to communicate with satellites in space in an innovative way allowing the tags to last much longer and collect much more data than tags currently used.  Stay tuned for a blog on these tags.

Preventing bycatch of nurse sharks. The Dutch Elasmobranch Society and the Saba Conservation Foundation have been working together with local fishermen to reduce the by-catch of nurse sharks in lobster traps. One essential element to achieve this is insight into the behaviour of sharks in and around the traps. Fishermen report that juvenile nurse sharks break into lobster traps to eat the trapped lobsters, but this is only anecdotal. Dr. Robert Nowicki of Mote Marine Lab has developed a camera system that can record the behavior of sharks in and near the traps, and this will be deployed this week.

Connectivity between habitats of Caribbean sharks. Between 2015 and 2018, a number of silky sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, and nurse sharks were equipped with acoustic tags to find out more about how these species utilize the area and the connectivity between different Caribbean habitats. Guido Leurs from the University of Groningen is building upon this research by collecting samples from Caribbean reef and nurse sharks to analyse diet and age of the sharks. Combined with the knowledge from the tagging program, this will offer government managers more insight into the role the Saba Bank plays in the life cycle of these sharks.

Stress levels of sharks in captivity. Blood samples will be taken from all sharks caught to determine the level of stress hormones in their systems. Based on this, researchers, can gain insight into how much stress the animals experience when they are examined for the different experiments. This information can be used to make the catch and research process as efficient as possible so that the animals are not adversely affected by the procedures.

There are also a couple of smaller projects the organizers aren’t promoting — but I’ll see if I can share an update or two about them. We’ll be out on the boat all day, and then back on land at night and I’m going to try to post an update each night. If you just can’t wait for the daily update, follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.