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Barbara Block | Fish with chips

Block’s creative use of technology has transformed ocean research
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First Published: Mon, Nov 26 2012. 07 33 PM IST
Barbara Block, seen here tagging a tuna in North Carolina, has pioneered several advances in electronic tagging to track the migration of ocean fish. Courtesy: Tag A Giant
Barbara Block, seen here tagging a tuna in North Carolina, has pioneered several advances in electronic tagging to track the migration of ocean fish. Courtesy: Tag A Giant
Updated: Mon, Nov 26 2012. 08 19 PM IST
New Delhi: When Barbara Block gazes at the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean from the Californian coast, she thinks of it as the Blue Serengeti because it hosts as rich an ecosystem as the great plains of Africa.
On her mission to conserve marine biodiversity, Block doesn’t shy away from unorthodox approaches. “My objective is to link people to the predators,” said the professor of marine biology at Stanford University, in an email interview, “(and) create predator cafés or biological ocean observatories, which will be pretty much social networks between white sharks and the public.”
Besides raising mass awareness, Block is involved in projects to tag and track important marine predators such as great white sharks, whales, seals and tuna, as well as sea birds and turtles.
A key innovation of Block, 54, is the Shark Net, a free app for the iPhone and iPad created by her team of marine scientists. Shark Net has made it possible for people to track sharks individually as the fish swim around America’s west coast.
Another Block innovation is a 2m robotic surfboard called the Wave Glider, which uses wave power for motion and solar power for its monitoring equipment. The glider picks up signals from up to 300m and will form part of a network of receivers, including static buoys, providing unprecedented insights into marine animal movement in the waters off North America’s Pacific coast.
Learning intimacy
Block learned about “the intimacy of sailing, research and wildlife” as a student at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She became a technician of warm fish biology.
“While I was interested in physiology and medicine, I became fascinated with how big fish stay warm,” she says. “I went on to study comparative physiology with the father of animal physiology, professor Knut Schmidt Nielsen, at Duke University.”
“I was always fascinated with where fish go,” says Block. “So, beginning in 1994, we started working on tags, small micro-computers that would help us understand where fish went.” Block went on to lead two large programme to tag fish—tagging over 2,000 bluefin tuna and 4,000 other animals in the Pacific.
Large marine predators such as sharks and tuna are essential to maintain the delicate balance of the ocean’s ecosystems, but the usual suspects of over-fishing, habitat destruction and pollution have reduced their population worldwide.
One in five persons worldwide depends on fish as the primary source of protein, the Food and Agriculture Organization says. The oceans might have already lost 90% of all big predatory fish, global research suggests. If unsustainable fishing is allowed to go on unchecked, it will not only destroy the marine ecosystem, but also ruin the food security of billions of people.
Playing tag
In response to the problem, Block has developed innovative electronic tagging techniques that enable her team to follow the movements of fish in the sea. In the late 1990s, she helped develop the first pop-up satellite archival tag—an ingenious 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 a satellite.
Earlier this year, Block’s technology was put to use in India for the first time when the Fishery Survey of India deployed 15 such tags on yellowfin tuna in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea to track the migratory movements of the fish.
The Rs 1.76 crore project has been implemented in collaboration with Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services, Hyderabad.
Block holds a formidable number of awards besides this year’s Rolex Award for Enterprise. A MacArthur and a Pew fellow, she holds the Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Professor Chair in marine sciences at Stanford University and is a co-founder of the Tuna Research and Conservation Center—the only facility in North America holding bluefin tuna for captive research. Unlike charting the surface of the earth, the exploration and study of oceans remains difficult, and large parts of our underwater geology and biology remain uncharted, but Block’s creative use of technology has transformed ocean research. She is trying to build a bigger picture of the marine world by setting up of a series of underwater listening stations.
“Oceans on our planet are troubled,” she says. “We have to establish protected areas. Without an aggressive effort to zone and effectively manage the oceans, the predator populations they support will decline and the biodiversity of this open-ocean wilderness will be irreplaceably lost. So 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.”
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First Published: Mon, Nov 26 2012. 07 33 PM IST