How IoT is being used to preserve our oceans and support the UN SDGs

Dedicated to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and connecting everyone and everything to a better future, mobile operators are transforming millions of people’s lives. To tell these stories of human impact, the #CaseForChange is packed with the latest tech and travelling around the world. Launched at MWC Americas in September and culminating at MWC 2018 in February, the journey will cross 19 countries and cover over 130,000km to capture the most powerful stories of human change, all backed by mobile.

Accounting for over 70% of the Earth’s surface, the health of our oceans is critical to the health of our planet. I visited the shoot in Scotland of Case For Change with Mollie Bylett to understand how Vodafone’s mobile technology is helping Dr Bernie McConnell, Deputy Director of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews, track Harbour seals and learn how they could be indicators of our oceans’ overall health.

The Orkney Islands, located just off the northern-most tip of Scotland, are home to an array of sea and birdlife. But in the last 10 years, the population of Harbour Seals (ironically also known as Common Seals) has declined by about 70%. Bernie has gained a plethora of insight about their movements and feeding habits by harmlessly attaching transmitters to a small sample of the population.

Made in collaboration with Vodafone, the transmitters, or as Bernie refers to as the seal’s ‘mobile phones’, are glued to the back of the seal’s neck. Housing various sensors, they are constantly capturing data about the depth and duration of the animal’s dives, and the GPS co-ordinates allowing their movements to be tracked. The data is stored indefinitely until the seal surfaces within range of Vodafone’s mobile network, triggering transmission from the device to the lab for analysis. Batteries power the units for over a year – long enough to continue monitoring and transmitting the data until the device comes off during the animal’s annual moult.

This November, Bernie and his Director Ailsa Hall, were back in Orkney to survey areas of interest in the surrounding waters where seals appeared to be frequenting. Using SONAR and catching samples of the fish species populating these ‘hot spots’, they hoped to uncover clues as to why the Harbour seal population was declining.

One theory suggests algal blooms could be creating imbalances within the seas, which in turn can have detrimental impacts on an ecosystem. These Harmful Algal Blooms describe a rapid increase in the population of certain species of algae that produce neurotoxins within an aquatic system. These neurotoxins can have severe biological impacts on wildlife and may explain the adverse impact on the local Harbour seal populations.

Some algal blooms are the result of an excess of nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen) into waters, which they feed on. Of course, humans have a significant impact on this imbalance as agricultural runoff (water passing through farm fields) is often nutrient-rich. Although this research only focuses on the impact on seals, it is potentially an indicator of the changing health of oceans overall.

There could be many other explanations for what is happening to the Harbour seal population in Orkney, including aggression from the Grey seal species (which they cohabitate with), or perhaps disease in the fish they feed on. Increasing amounts of plastic and other pollution of our seas could also be playing a part. But without Vodafone’s support, and Bernie’s unique IoT solution, we would be a lot further away from solving the mystery of Orkney’s Harbour seals’ alarming decline.

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