Protecting Marine Life through Better Plastics Design

Scientists call for better plastics design to encourage recycling, and to prevent small pieces of indestructible materials from finding their way into our oceans.  Richard Thompson, a marine biology professor at the Plymouth University, said that better designed plastics reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  He added that clear bottles can easily be recycled compared to dyed bottles.

Microplastics accumulating in our oceans have been a problem for over 6 decades, with most of it from disposed poorly-designed plastics.  Alice Horton, eco-toxicologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, suggests people should recycle more, reduce plastics usage, and to realize its effects on our oceans.  Alastair Grant, ecology professor at the University of East Anglia, said that debris-catchers can help clean up the oceans, but preventing plastics disposal is more efficient.

Microbeads are microplastic wastes used in beauty and health products such as body scrubs and toothpastes.  Banned in the US and UK, scientists say they have absolutely no societal benefit.  Although microbeads have been phased out, it is harder to ban all plastics due to their important uses.  A study published in June found that microbeads affect the growth of fish larvae.  Fish larvae died of starvation and showed less response to their environment.

Producers have tried biodegradable plastics to solve the problem, but these plastics only break down in certain conditions.  Scientists at the UN called this a “false solution”.  They have since been doing research on sources and varieties of plastics, and their effects on marine life.  Though scientists are finding a permanent solution, Thompson said they must focus on what they can do with what they already know.

Internet of Things: Survival of Harbour Seals

The Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St. Andrews will conduct a study on the decline of harbour seals population in the Scottish archipelago.  Using telemetry tags affixed to the fur at the back of their heads, the seals will transmit their location, dive behaviours, and oceanic environment back to Vodafone’s M2M network.  This allows for improved data gathering by monitoring multiple SIM cards from a single remote PC.

Initiated by the Scottish Natural Heritage, and in partnership with Vodafone, this project aims to further Scottish marine policies, formulate mitigation options, and prioritize research on the survival of the harbour seals.  According to Dr. Bernie McConnell, Deputy Director of the SMRU, the number of harbour seals in the Northern Isles and Scottish archipelago has declined by up to 90 percent over the last 15 years.  Professor John Baxter, Principal Adviser for Marine at the Scottish Natural Heritage, added that the study will help researchers understand the factors that drive the population of Scottish harbour seals.

The private sector is increasingly looking to capitalise on this application of the IoT, too. Vodafone has devoted significant resources to promote Nb-IoT (Narrowband-Internet of Things), a radio technology that connects physical devices, such as the SIM cards in the telemetry tags, to allow low cost, low battery consumption while transmitting data between devices. In Australia, Intergrid, a datacentre provider, is also researching how a distributed cloud platform could impact endangered terrestrial species.

Mapping the Oceans with Underwater Drones

Soon as Pete LeHardy, business development manager at the Phoenix International in Louisiana, learned about the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, his crew headed for Australia to find the wreckage.  For 70 days, the crew’s automatic underwater vehicle (AUV) called Artemis, searched more than 850-square kilometers of ocean depths.  As with 26 other countries that joined the search, their efforts were futile.

Although Artemis, also known as the Bluefin-21, is among the pioneer drones that were mainly used for commercial research in the oil and gas industries, similar drones have since been assembled and used by universities and research organizations, to explore the ocean depths for wreckage and marine life.  According to Dr. Paul Bunje, Ph.D., director at the California-based XPRIZE Foundation, NASA’s exploration budget is 150 times greater than NOAA’s.  This means we know more about the outer space than our own oceans.  Dr. Bunje hopes the government would prioritize ocean exploration.  In May, tragedy struck Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).  One of it AUVs, Nereus, imploded six miles deep in the Pacific Ocean.  It was 30 days into the Kermadec Trench exploration.  Sadly, its remaining missions were scrapped.  This tragedy left a huge impact on everyone involved in deep ocean exploration.

Artemis was created to find wreckage underwater.  Equipped with basic sonar and underwater cameras, Artemis calculates the depth of the area, dives into the ocean, and photographs the terrain.  Although LeHardy’s initial search of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 failed, they were able to successfully unraveled an unexplored part of the ocean.  With the photographs they collected, the team is closer to finding the wreckage when the search reboots in August.

Dr. Bunje says that the ocean is their final frontier.  Ultimately, the goal is to map the entire depths of our oceans.  This will enable them to find every wreckage underwater, unravel marine habitats, and prove or debunk ocean mysteries that has hounded us for many centuries.