Tracking Large Marine Predators at their “Cafés”

Earlier this year Rolex announced the five winners of the 2012 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, who are being honored in New Delhi, India,  on November 27. This profile looks at the work of Marine Biologist Barbara Block, who has developed innovative electronic tagging techniques that enable following fish beneath the sea. Block’s aim is to build the technology that will enable monitoring of ocean hotspots where nutrient-rich waters form attractive hunting grounds for predators, and to engage the public on the plight of marine predators that roam along the west coast of North America.

“Large marine predators such as sharks and tunas are essential to maintaining the delicate balance of our ocean ecosystems, but overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution have caused reductions of populations worldwide,” Rolex says in materials about the work of Barbara Block..

“Measures advocated by scientists to reverse this decline include the creation of large marine protected areas in the open ocean that preserve feeding and breeding grounds. A major challenge has been to identify the best locations for these sanctuaries, since these species are highly migratory and difficult to follow.

“Barbara Block, a professor of marine biology, has developed innovative electronic tagging techniques that enable following fish beneath the sea. In the late 1990s, she helped develop the first pop-up satellite archival tag, a device that detaches itself from the fish on a pre-programmed date and floats to the surface of the sea where it transmits archived data via satellite.”


Barbara Block, pictured here tagging tunas in North Carolina, has pioneered several advances in electronic tagging to track the migration of ocean fish. North Carolina, United States, 2007. Photo: Courtesy of TAG A Giant.


“From 2000 to 2010, Block was co-chief scientist for the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) programme, part of the Census of Marine Life, an 80-nation endeavor to assess the diversity and abundance of life in the oceans,” Rolex said in its news materials..

“Through deployment of more than 4,000 electronic tags, 23 species of large predators from six groups (tunas, sharks, turtles, whales, seals and seabirds) were studied in the waters of the North Pacific. The TOPP scientists identified three marine “hotspots” where nutrient-rich waters form attractive hunting grounds for predators, which feast on abundant krill, sardines, anchovies, salmon and squid. The supply of natural prey in these hotspots ensures that populations of white sharks, salmon sharks, shortfin mako sharks and some tunas remain for a significant portion of time each year and return after each migration.

“Block’s aim is to build the technology that will enable monitoring of these ocean hotspots and to engage the public on the plight of marine predators that roam along the west coast of North America – a crucial prelude to their conservation. Her team conducts “conservation oceanography” incorporating the latest advances in sensor technology, ocean observing systems and computational methods to provide resource managers and policy-makers with data on the sustainability of both exploited and protected marine predators.”


White shark off the California coast with an acoustic and satellite tag. California. Photo: Courtesy of Tagging of Pacific Predators.


Blue Serengeti

“Block considers public outreach a fundamental part of her work, and is committed to providing science-based advocacy for sustainable fisheries at national and international policy levels and in the media,” according to Rolex. “Block led the Tag A Giant Campaign, an effort to place more than 1,000 electronic tags in giant Atlantic bluefin tuna so that new knowledge would be acquired to improve management; her team’s work helped recognize the plight of this highly exploited fish. Block’s ultimate goal in the Pacific is the creation of a large, marine UNESCO World Heritage site off the Californian shore to protect the open ocean wilderness the TOPP team discovered. Her team’s research provides an eye-opening picture of neighbourhoods, migratory highways, hotspots and homecoming gatherings just off the populous western coastline of North America – a “Blue Serengeti”.

“With the receipt of a Rolex Award, Block will make progress towards protecting this area through the creation of a network of marine “predator cafés”, or biological ocean observatories, which will be distributed along the Californian coastline to monitor the animals and transmit data on their movements to a satellite or cell network for relay to the lab.

“Block’s team will tag sharks and tunas with relatively inexpensive, long-lasting acoustic tags that communicate to mobile and fixed listening stations. Establishing the capacity to listen at ocean hotspots will allow Block to conduct an ongoing census of the sharks and tunas as they come and go on their annual migratory cycles, providing the ability to monitor these populations from year to year. A website and mobile application will allow the general public to engage with these important species via the “predator cafés”.

“Most conservation efforts and advocacy to date have been devoted to land-based ecosystems. Block’s passion for combining science research with modern technology will allow everyone to engage with and help preserve the lives of the predators of the open sea.”


Barbara Block’s ultimate aim is the creation of a large, marine UNESCO World Heritage site off the Californian shore of the United States. Big Sur coastline, Monterey, United States, 2012. Photo: ©Rolex Awards/Bart Michiels.


One of the world’s leading marine scientists, Barbara Block demonstrates creativity, determination and inventiveness, pushing forward technology, as well as collaborating with other disciplines to transform ocean research, Rolex says. “Her commitment goes beyond the science, however, since she has applied her expertise to critical worldwide conservation issues such as the sustainable management of commercial tuna fisheries. Her work stems from a strong desire to preserve the oceans and foster their care, encouraging the public to change consumption behaviour and influence policies. Block’s commitment to public engagement was evident when she helped her colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium bring a school of yellowfin and bluefin tunas behind glass so that2 million people a year could see the beauty of their form, colour and locomotion.”

Advancing rapidly since her Rolex Award was announced in June 2012, Barbara Block has implemented two key innovations on her project, Rolex adds.

“The first is a two-metre robotic surfboard, built by California-based company Liquid Robotics, which uses wave power for motion and solar power for its monitoring equipment. The Wave Glider, which has been named Carey, is travelling the waters off North American’s Pacific Coast and is fitted with receivers that pick up signals from acoustic tags attached to fish and other marine animals. The Glider can pick up signals from up to 300 metres and will form part of a network of receivers, including static buoys, providing unprecedented insights into marine animal movements. Initially the Glider is gathering information about sharks, but this will be extended to other predators.

“The second innovation reflects Block’s focus on education of the public. Shark Net, an iOS app for iPhones and iPads, which was part-funded by her Rolex Award, transmits data from the Wave Glider and other receivers to anyone anywhere in the world with an iOS device, enabling users to follow individual sharks and learn about their lives. “Our goal is to use revolutionary technology that increases our capacity to observe our oceans and census populations, improve fisheries management models, and monitor animal responses to climate change,” Block says. “My mission is to protect ocean biodiversity and the open sea.”

Changing Planet

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn