Smithsonian; January 2003
Freelance writer Jeff Wheelwright’s piece details an innovative Pacific Ocean tuna tracking initiative and its charismatic scientist-researcher, Barbara Block, a Stanford University marine biologist and 1996 Macarthur Foundation “genius” award winner.
A part of the multi-national, multi-year, and multi-million dollar “Census of Marine Life,” (CoML) project that is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the spear-like tagging project, using a sensor and transmitter, will beam a signal to an orbiting satellite advising of its location worldwide.*
“Assessing the status of marine life around the world has gained urgency in this era of coastal pollution and alarming overfishing,” Wheelwright writes. He says project researchers are concerned that the 90 percent of the Earth’s biosphere represented by seas and oceans “are largely unexplored, and the life in them largely undescribed.”
Wheelwright reports that Atlantic bluefin tunas “can sprint 40 miles an hour and cruise 150 miles a day. The giant Atlantic bluefin, which Block has studied even more extensively than the Pacific variety, may survive 25 years or longer and reach 1,500 pounds.” A delicacy cherished, in particular by sushi lovers for their abundant meat, Pacific bluefin can fetch up to $10,000 per fish at Tokyo auctions, Wheelwright reports. The probes used in tracking the tuna measure water temperature and pressure every two minutes, he says.
The data allows scientists to learn the tagged tuna’s global whereabouts daily and within about 60 miles. The Tagging of Pacific Pelagics (TOPP) research effort Block leads expects in time to monitor a dozen species, including Humboldt squid, great white sharks, and elephant seals, Wheelwright reports. In the end, he writes, the research “may shed light on the condition of some of the world’s fisheries, which are under great strain” – a condition some environmentalists and marine scientists classify as a “crisis.” He reports Block’s hopes that fisheries managers as a result will “make the changes necessary to ensure the future of the species.”
*Editor’s note: the editor of Environment Writer has a CoML consulting relationship with the University of Rhode Island’s Office of Marine Programs, Graduate School of Oceanography, which has been funded by the Sloan Foundation to participate in the CoML project.) (See: http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues03/jan03/sea_searchers.html)
February 1, 2003