Established almost a decade ago, through visionary funding by the Canadian Government, the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) is helping unite a global network of scientists tracking commercially, culturally, regionally important, and endangered aquatic species.
A new special issue of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences synthesizes outcomes and impacts of this multidisciplinary global Network. Below is a summary of the series’ editorial, “The Ocean Tracking Network: Advancing Frontiers in Aquatic Science and Management.“
The socio-economic benefits of aquatic animals climb into the billions annually. From eco-tourism (e.g. whale watching, sport fishing) to large-scale commercial harvesting, aquatic animals support coastal livelihoods, food sustainability, and ecosystem resilience world-wide.
Marine and freshwater animals move to survive—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. They move across geopolitical boundaries that make monitoring and conservation measures all the more difficult, e.g. endangered sharks that are protected in Canada are not protected in other parts of the world where they regularly migrate.
Designing the Network & research questions
The beginning of the Canadian research Network that helped launch OTN globally addressed one multifaceted question across Canada’s three oceans: what are the movements of marine animals and what are the consequences of environmental change on these species’ interactions, distributions and abundances?
As the Network grew, specific framework questions expanded the research within Canada and internationally and used cross-cutting activities (e.g. assimilating animal tracking data with coastal and offshore oceanographic models) to support interactivity and collaboration within the Network. This approach fostered effective communication among researchers and laboratories, provided extraordinary training opportunities for students, and advanced the development of novel technology.
The success of OTN’s unique partnership-building model is reflected in partner organizations emulating this model to also work to harmonize the vast amounts of aquatic research and animal tracking data (e.g. iTag, European Animal Telemetry Network) being collected by evermore sophisticated (and sometimes autonomous) technology.
Expertise within the Network, drawn from universities, government, industry, rights holders, knowledge holders, and the public, have strengthened OTN’s ability to communicate results and achievements across geographic boundaries, sectors, and disciplines, as well as to influence policy and management actions.
Partnering with industry in particular has allowed advancements in underwater monitoring capability. As of 2019, a fleet of six Slocum electric gliders and one Wave Glider patrol the waters of the Northwest Atlantic, piloted by a team of glider experts who are leading the creation of a national glider centre, headquartered on Canada’s east coast and expanding into the Arctic and Pacific.
New tags have advanced the concept of mobile tracking to include large aquatic animals capable of acting as “animal oceanographers,” documenting their surroundings, including environmental conditions and bathymetric features, as well as interactions with other tagged animals. Miniaturized tags (4mm) are tracking salmon at a critical life stage when salmon migrate from rivers to the open ocean.
Canada’s visionary and explicitly coordinated funding structure that launched OTN, which directly coupled infrastructure investments with the research making use of this infrastructure, along with the ability to both support and leverage international collaborations, allowed OTN to become a global leader in aquatic animal science and stewardship.
Building relationships with stakeholder groups has been paramount to OTN’s success. Consultations with local user groups have informed study design as well as helped disseminate knowledge beyond the academic community. OTN has assisted industry in meeting regulatory requirements while balancing sustainable development goals.
Part of OTN’s research model is also examining the effectiveness of existing laws and regulations, as well as reasons why scientific information may not be used to its full potential. The social science component of OTN is integrated into all projects to ensure better use of the information collected.
To date, OTN has generated an expansive amount of research on the distributions of aquatic species relative to environmental conditions. Many studies layered additional multidisciplinary methods on telemetry research such as genomics, isotope analysis, physiology and energetics measurements, and laboratory experiments. Documenting the movements of freely moving animals across a vast ocean and its connected freshwater bodies was previously considered intractable, but in the example of the global OTN platform, technologies and expertise are leveraged to allow cost-effective and integrative science in far reaching corners of the world.
For more information on OTN activities, the 10 year look back is available to explore online.