Jul 24 2014

Assessing Environmental Impacts with Marine Organism Tracking

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Undoubtedly, the development and installation of offshore energy devices comes with environmental impacts. Out of the many areas of impact, the area which receives perhaps the most attention is the impact on marine organisms—specifically pelagic predators. An interest in pelagic predators such as whales, marlins, tuna, sharks, and seals has led to a respectable amount of research and observation of these organisms. One program aimed at studying these organisms’ behavior is Global Tagging of Pelagic Predators (GTOPP). The aim of this program is “tounderstand the factors that influence animal behavior in the blue ocean and to build the tools required for protecting their future” (TOPP). As of now 120 white sharks, 27 salmon sharks, and five mako sharks are carrying acoustic tags and relaying information about their location and depth to researches of the TOPP program. Tracking devices are extremely useful in relation to offshore renewable energy technologies as they can assess in carrying out environmental impact assessments. Before a developing company may install its device it must obtain a permit and in order to obtain this permit, it must prove that the device will not significantly impact marine populations. Part of the difficulty in conducting these studies stems from the lack of knowledge pertaining to marine organisms and their behavioral patters which currently exists. In order to observe how ocean energy technologies impact marine species, we first need to understand how these species act in the absence of anthropogenic factors.

An example of a tracking device used by the TOPP program

An example of a tracking device used by the TOPP program http://cdn.phys.org/newman/gfx/news/hires/2013/2-studymapshum.jpg

In cooperation with the GTOPP program, which Stanford coordinates in part, Stanford marine biologists and engineers launched an aquatic robot named Carey. This robot is a modified Wave Glider, a robot originally designed by Liquid Robotics to make collect data on ocean conditions (LRI 2012). For example Liquid Robotics just signed an agreement with NOAA in which the Wave Glider robots will be used to improve weather forecast techniques, specifically the forecasting of extreme weather events. Stanford describes the design as a “surfing robot” as it rides waves and currents around designated areas of the ocean (Carey 2012). With the specific receiver outfitting on the Carey Wave Rider, Stanford marine biologists plan to study the behavior of marine animals in ways in which they could not previously. Currently, researchers rely on buoys attached to the seafloor with mooring lines receive transmission signals from a tagged animal when it is with in 2,000 feet (Carey 2012). These new surfing robot receivers will be able to travel and survey designated areas in order to track animals with tracking devices and gain a fuller understanding on migratory and behavioral patterns.

Dual views of the Wave Glider http://www.roboticsbible.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/unmanned-wave-glider-300x154.jpg

Dual views of the Wave Glider
http://www.roboticsbible.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/unmanned-wave-glider-300×154.jpg

This new technology would prove extremely beneficial in studying the environmental impacts of offshore energy devices. Another problem in determining the how human activities influence the behavior of animals is the absence of a reliable technique of observing these animals. With the Carey Wave Glider offshore energy companies could not only make observations prior to device installation, but they could also make assessments during and after the operation of these devices.

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