TECH4ALL: Making Waves in Sea Life Protection

ByLuke McDonnell

July 19, 2021

Luke McDonnell

With 96% of our oceans currently unprotected according to Cork-based Ocean Research & Conservation Association Ireland (ORCA Ireland), marine life is vulnerable to threats from human activity and natural events, much like land-based flora and fauna.

Globally 2,270 marine species are endangered or threatened with extinction, with nearly 50 facing extinction in Irish waters alone. Ship strikes, pollution from vessels, ocean acidification, land runoff, ambient noise pollution, and waste dumping are just some of the dangers facing our oceans and the life they support. Adding to this is the fact that oceans are difficult environments to study, so data that can enable a coherent response is often lacking.

ORCA Ireland, Rainforest Connection, and Huawei have come together to change this narrative with technology under our digital inclusion initiative TECH4ALL, one domain of which is environmental conservation.

Now we’re expanding TECH4ALL’s partnership approach to see how we can use technology to deliver real-time detection and alerts to protect marine life, including whales and dolphins, from threats can seriously injure or kill them.

Since last year, we’ve been working with Rainforest Connection to protect forest ecosystems, with the Rainforest Guardian system currently deployed in 22 protected areas in 18 countries to safeguard forest ecosystems against threats like illegal logging.

RFCx installing an AI-powered “Guardian” in Palawan Rainforest in the Philippines

Marine Life under Threat

An estimated 90% of Ireland’s international trade travels by sea, with the South Coast of Ireland one of the busiest heavy ship shipping lanes in the world. Thousands of large container ships pass through it from Eastern Canada to Liverpool and other European ports annually, as well as additional pleasure boats, speed crafts and eco-tour operators.  Ireland’s South Coast has been chosen to conduct the study as it is one of the world’s most important foraging, resting and reproductive habitats for cetacean species. Ireland is home to 25 species of resident and migratory cetaceans which account for 48% of all mammals found in Ireland, and one-third of all cetaceans found worldwide.

Heavy ship traffic places whales at an increased risk of ship strikes causing injury or even death, and also raises the ambient noise pollution affecting all species in the vicinity. According to Marine Institute Ireland, ship traffic in the area is on the rise. And thus so are the dangers.

Source: Marine Institute Ireland / Shipping routes off the Ireland South Coast

Underpinned by technological support through our TECH4ALL initiative, ORCA Ireland and Rainforest Connection have deployed the first real-time monitoring solution for detecting the sounds marine life make in Irish waters and examine the impact heavy ship traffic has on cetaceans like whales, dolphins, and other marine wildlife.

Following months of development, a 13-foot, 2-tonne specially designed data gathering buoy was deployed 9 km off the coast of Baltimore, Co. Cork. Attached to the buoy is an autonomous hydrophone (an underwater microphone) which will record whale species in real-time and train sophisticated machine learning models to identify different species calls. The data will be used to create a marine wildlife detection and classification model, which has the potential to be applied to other projects across the globe.

Source: Luke McDonnell / Footage of a dolphin captured on the boat to install the smart buoy

This Smart Whale Sounds project will provide a much greater understanding of what is happening on Ireland’s ocean floors – specifically helping with the identification and classification of species in Irish waters, their distribution and behaviour and how noise pollution is changing these patterns. In the long-term, it could potentially lead to the development of an early warning system that will enable ships to reduce their speed in time to lessen the considerable risk of whale ship strikes.

The sound of a porpoise recorded by the smart buoy

With Protection Comes Understanding

The Smart Whale Sounds project will let us peer into the secret world of whales and other cetaceans in real-time and provide marine biologists and conservationists with an understanding that they’ve have never had before, and enable us to respect these animals and not disturb their natural behaviours that are essential for their survival.

Having been active in Ireland for 16 years, our first TECH4ALL project in the nation and the prospect of expanding the protective capacity of technology into the oceans is very exciting.

The project will see Ireland leading the way in the advancement of policy and programmes that respect and protect marine wildlife informed by real-time data available for the first time, and made accessible to interested bodies working across policy, marine and environmental protection, research and education.

Click the links to read more about TECH4ALL’s environmental initiatives.

Further reading:

Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.

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Luke McDonnell

Public Affairs and Communications Department (Ireland), Huawei

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