Science AT SEA
As we sail through the blue Mediterranean, we carry out scientific surveys with clearcut objectives.
Marine Protected Areas and biodiversity
Commercial and recreational human activities are regulated in protected areas. This regulation gives marine life the space it deserves to feed and reproduce. This benefits biodiversity, fishing, tourism and communities. Over the last 25 years, Alnitak has provided scientific data for the design and management of 14 Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean and abroad.
We have worked hand in hand with maritime transport, security, fishing and tourism industries. We’re proud to have supplied one of the largest databases in Europe, helping to set up protected sites for marine mammals and sea turtles. Following the success of our conservation management in the Mediterranean, we’ve expanded our work to projects in Malta, Africa and Latin America, with the help of our Ashoka Fellowship award in 2014.
We conduct studies to assess and monitor risks to biodiversity, testing new technologies to reduce loss of marine life.
WHAT WE DO ON BOARD
Mapping the abundance and distribution of cetaceans, seabirds and marine turtles
We use data modelling with visual surveys, satellite tracking and acoustic surveys to produce a geographic information system that will provide:
- the foundation for the design of marine protected areas
- trends in conservation status of animals and usage of different sites
- a solid foundation for the establishment of management measures
Identifying risk factors of sea turtle by-catch
We study the way sea turtles and cetaceans use their underwater habitat and investigate their behaviour on the surface. Using this data, we can identify the factors that lead to by-catch and entanglement in floating debris and fishing gear. We can then produce a series of recommendations and technologies to help fishermen reduce these risks.
Our surveys also provide an ideal platform to conduct studies on animal health and welfare. We collaborate with teams of veterinarians from the Oceanogràfic of Valencia, looking at the effects of the ingestion of toxic substances and marine litter (micro and macro plastics) and stress produced by shipping, man-made noise and fishing.
Modelling and predicting risk to fragile species
Our “turtle oceanographer” program equips sea turtles with satellite tags. As they roam the open ocean, they feed back data in real time, giving us access to their secret underwater lives. This process, where information is transmitted wirelessly to a source, is known as telemetry, with the data we can develop mathematical models to predict their depth and movements. We combine this data with the oceanographic information from SOCIB to produce maps that enhance the efficacy of cleanup activities for fishing gear. Find out more here.
Ship strikes - Sperm whales and sea turtles are most at risk
Our solution: We have managed to reconfigure the maritime Traffic Separation Scheme in the Mediterranean, benefiting both the transport industry and the vulnerable species. Download our publication on reducing vessel threat to whales here.
Working hand-in-hand with fishermen
One of the main risks for sea turtles is long-line fishing hooks. We believe in the importance of communicating directly with fishermen, with mutual respect and trust. We share the results of our science with them, exchanging perspectives and incorporating their knowledge and experience. We then go out to sea to test measures together. This ensures that our measures are understood and accepted by fleets.
Our solution: In 2008, after we surveyed the diving patterns and habitat use of sea turtles, the Spanish Mediterranean longlining fleet started changing their fishing operation, using different bait and setting deeper hooks. They adopted new sea turtle bycatch handling and release protocols, saving thousands of turtles each year. These actions were based on our suggestions, reducing sea turtle by-catch in longline fisheries by 95%. Find out more about our project here.
Documenting the beauty and the challenges of the open ocean.
Our surveys expose us to awe-inspiring experiences- working out in the deep blue. However, we also witness some of the major threats to the ocean ecosystem. Photography and videos are key tools to help raise awareness about these environmental issues and to supplement the educational activities we develop when we’re back in port.
Getting the data out there!
After the excitement and adventure of data collection out at sea, comes the even harder part. We carry out data analysis, reporting, presenting, publishing, training and lobbying, to make sure our proposed management measures are implemented. Our main objectives are:
- Design new marine protected areas (MPAs) and a new offshore National Park of over 100.000 Hectares
- Assist in the management of already established MPAs
- Reduce the risk of vessel strikes
- Reduce the risk of noise pollution
- Reduce negative interactions between fisheries and endangered species
TURTLES TURN INTO OCEANOGRAPHERS
OASIS CONSERVATION PROJECT
The OASIS program was set up in 2013 to study loggerhead turtles, cetaceans, Bluefin tuna and sharks. Unlike reefs and coasts, the open ocean can be a lonely place, a blue desert where drifting Sargasso, logs and turtles become a crucial habitat for all open water (pelagic) species. A basking loggerhead turtle becomes a small oasis, offering its body and shade as habitat for sea birds, invertebrates and algae. Gradually, this habitat builds up a bait ball of small fish, an essential source of food for great ocean voyagers as sharks, tuna, mahi mahi and cetaceans. The sea turtles turn into a floating oasis. Find out more about this project on the SOCIB webpage.
Out in the deep blue, we study cetaceans, sea turtles, sharks and tunas. Our research team deploys satellite tags on loggerhead turtles to track them in real time, observing their behaviour and habitat use. Our tagged animals become “animal oceanographers” sending us valuable information. We can see where they go and what they do. The goal is to one day manage fish stocks based on real time information we receive about the underwater ecosystem.
So far, this approach has given us more insight into the loggerhead turtle’s habits and is helping us create “zoning maps” for sea turtle populations. These will help us reduce bycatch and ship strikes as we redirect shipping lanes and create marine reserves.
Over the summer, we’ve successfully tagged a number of sea turtles with high-tech satellite tags. Our new crew of turtle oceanographers have been feeding back data to our team of marine biologists. Since 2003, we’ve deployed over 50 tags. Want to find out where they are?
We input our data into our Integrated Ocean Observation System (IOOS), a revolutionary platform that receives data from satellites, buoys, gliders, hydrophones and cameras. The IOOS receives the data at once and uses it to model maps with physical characteristics. This amazing oceanographic tool is used to forecast tsunamis, storms and even predict the movement of oil spills. We use it to help us interpret the movements of open water species and apply these directly to the management of fishing techniques and marine reserves.
For this experiment, state of the art underwater gliders were deployed alongside satellite tagged turtles. Just like remotely operated vehicles shaped like submarines, they can navigate and sample at different depths. Our gliders are manipulated by technicians using tools similar to video game controllers to follow the sea turtles and feedback valuable oceanographic data. They can measure salinity, sound, temperature, water quality and more.
Loggerhead sea turtles are transoceanic travellers. The conservation of such a highly mobile species requires effort on an international scale. Alnitak has teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Marine Turtle Conservation Fund program, created under the US Marine Turtle Conservation Act. Along with NOAA and Kai Marine Services, we continue in our efforts to track and research sea turtles, with the hope of reducing ship collisions and by-catch of this beautiful species.
As we approach the next few years, 2018 to 2020, we aim to:
- continue our research at sea, track turtles and develop our “Oasis experiments” for SOCIB and their oceanic observation system.
- conduct fishing trials to develop and test new bycatch mitigation technological measures
- monitor illegal fishing activities, like the use of surface driftnets
- put pressure on administrations to take action and improve monitoring and management of bycatch
- encourage positive leadership and sustainability in the fishing industry
- develop our communications and public participation activities to raise awareness
One of Alnitak’s fields of interest has been the development and testing of a variety of underwater sensors and electronic monitoring systems (EMS). These can be use to monitor human activities in protected areas (navigation, fishing, noise, debris pollution), to monitor whale and dolphin populations (passive acoustics) as well as sea turtles and tunas (telemetry and acoustic tagging networks - Guideline for the use of Electronic Monitoring in NATURA 2000.)
US Fish and Wildlife Service, Spanish tuna fishing fleet, SOCIB, National Geographic, Kai Marine, Stanford University, Tag a Giant, IFREMER (Ocean Research Institute of France), NOAA
PLASTIC POLLUTION - RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
CHANGING OUR PLASTIC PLANET
Over the last ten years, humans have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century. Most of the plastic we buy is just used once and throw away. A large amount of it ends up in our oceans, either via waterways or open dumping. Plastic in the ocean breaks down into such smaller segments called microplastics, these end up all over the world, drifting under water like a plastic soup. The long-term effects of this on the ecosystem are still unknown, but plastic pollution is fast becoming one of the most worrying environmental crises of our age.
For this reason, ALNITAK is dedicating a large amount of its conservation efforts to the reduction of plastic pollution. Through educational programs, citizen science projects and microplastic research, we’re committed to reducing the amount of plastic that reaches our seas and helping to create a cleaner, greener and more sustainable future for the next generation. The effects of plastic consumption are easy to see out on the water. Hundreds of thousands of marine animals are harmed each year by plastic debris, from sea turtles entangled in fishing nets, to fish swallowing plastic particles.
Below is a list of projects ALNITAK is running to help raise awareness about this global issue:
LIBERA is a project created by SEO/BirdLife, the leading environmental NGO in Spain, in partnership with Ecoembes, a non-profit environmental organization that promotes a circular economy by recycling packaging. One of LIBERA's projects this year is in collaboration with our research vessel, the Toftevaag, to help us investigate the distribution of marine debris in the Mediterranean.
This initiative’s main objective is to raise awareness, mobilizing citizens to help us keep our seas trash-free. LIBERA takes a three-pronged approach: information, prevention and participation. Information, because we need to understand more about the quantity, category and origin of waste; prevention, by raising awareness through educational campaigns; and participation, without the engagement of citizens, we can’t create a change.
On June 16, LIBERA is organizing 1m2 for Nature, a large-scale collaborative citizen science event, bringing together people from all over Spain for one day. The event mobilizes citizens to pick a spot in nature and clean and clear it from garbage, raising awareness, conserving spaces and collecting trash. It’s a day of spring-cleaning, but above all, it educates and inspires change.
Find out more on www.proyectolibera.org
Marine Litter Hub is a citizen science initiative between Asociación Vertidos Cero and our sister organization, KAI Marine Services, along with the collaboration of the recycling company Ecoembes. The aim is to involve as may people as possible in the gloabal issue of plastic waste, which threatens our environment, health and even our economy. One of the ways we are trying to achieve this is through a newly developed app: MARNOBA. This app allows sailors and beach goers to spot pieces of marine debris from beaches and floating above the water, and the data is shared with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Food and the Environment (MAPAMA).
In collaboration with the 5 Gyres Institute, we’ve acquired a manta trawl to allow us to investigate the presence of microplastic particles in the Mediterranean Sea. The manta trawl protocol is meant to produce a standardized measurement of plastic pollution in various areas of the world. A mesh net with holes of 5 microns or less is dragged at the side of the boat as it picks up particles just under the surface of the water. So far, we’ve found an alarming amount of plastic in what we thought were pristine natural reserves. Microplastic particles were usually part of larger pieces of debris, but the action of sunlight and waves have broken it down into smaller bits over time.
Entanglement is something we come across during our voyages a sea. It’s always alarming to see sea turtles or cetaceans stuck in abandoned fishing nets and ghost nets. We always endeavour to do whatever possible to help save these animals, giving them a second chance at life.
Our Changemakers At Sea Competition, in collaboration with Asociación Ondine and The Sea Musketeers, is empowering students in the Balearic Islands and beyond to fight plastic pollution. Teams of participants come together to find solutions to this global challenge, through social media campaigns, artwork, blogs, videos and more. The top four teams will be invited on board our research vessel for one week. During this week the students will experience life at sea, learn about marine science from the front line and dive deeper into the issue of plastic pollution and how we can mitigate it.
FISHERMEN TRAINING - WORKING TOGETHER
Fishermen as Stewards of Marine Biodiversity
To help conserve biodiversity in our fishing sector, we believe it’s important to empower fishermen with positive leadership skills and strategies for ocean conservation. With the support of Fundación Biodiversidad and the EU Fisheries Fund, we set up a pioneering program, called the Fishermen Stewards, as a direct collaboration between Alnitak and selected tuna vessels in the Mediterranean.
In this project, we conduct our research on sea turtles, cetaceans, tunas and sharks with the collaboration of fishing fleets. Fishing vessels turn into research platforms, as we exchange of academic and practical perspectives during our experiments at sea. When in port, we hold periodic workshops to discuss the results of scientific studies and strategies to tackle the challenges of conservation. Here we exchange information and perspectives with the fishing community. We:
- Provide training workshops in conservation and sustainable techniques
- Carry out trials at sea to develop and implement more efficient fishing techniques
- Use tracking techniques to study cetaceans, sea turtles, sharks and improve the sustainability of industrial tuna fishing
- Communicate with and lobby government bodies to eradicate illegal and unregulated fishing activities
- Identify opportunities to work alongside coastal communities
- Develop innovative technological measures to research and monitor keystone habitats and species
Supporting Responsible Fisheries
Fisheries generally get bad press. We hear about over-exploitation of fish stocks, illegal fishing, destruction of seafloors, bycatch of protected species and tons of specimens thrown over the side of fishing vessels. Many of these threats are easy to document and can be captured in disturbing images. Fishermen can be portrayed unfairly in this story and we’d like to put this image into perspective. The fishermen often have to deal with dangers beyond their control, such as the pollution of marine ecosystems via toxic substances, hydrocarbons, plastic or noise pollution. These are threats that are not so visual, yet can often have a much greater impact on our ecosystems.
As a conservation organisation, we want to focus on the fishermen who are doing their job in a responsible manner, paying their tax, ensuring adequate working conditions and taking the effort to collaborate with researchers and policy makers to work on solutions. These are the people who will create an efficient and sustainable practice so they need to be supported and encouraged. More than any other sector, fisheries are directly dependant on healthy and productive coastal and marine ecosystems. Fishermen play a significant role in collecting essential in situ scientific data, removing floating debris or oil pollution and even ensuring the surveillance of reserves in remote areas. Through our training program we hope to make responsible fishing more competitive than illegal or irresponsible fishing. The immediate benefit of this to coastal communities is food security, but the advantages go way beyond that.
Coastal community resilience
Around the world, coastal communities are struggling to survive under the pressures of climate change, overexploitation and pollution. The increase in food demand can drive the growth of often clumsy and unsafe fishing operations that have a negative impact on people and coastal habitats. Anchoring on reefs, entanglement and loss of fishing nets, pollution, dynamite fishing, etc. are common practices that can jeopardize the potential key ecosystems in these communities.
In seven selected pilot projects and Marine Protected Areas around the planet, we developed our Fishermen Stewards program, building a bridge between fishing fleets and coastal communities. Here communities partake in the sustainable management of key habitats, such as mangroves, beaches, sea grass prairies and reefs. We work top-down to establish the adequate legal framework, as well as bottom up, actively involving citizens and stakeholders. The aim is to provide resilience and food security.
USFWS – MAPAMA – CEPESCA