The Ocean Tracking Network: Advancing frontiers in aquatic science and management


It’s not surprising that the socio-economic benefits of fish and aquatic wildlife climb into the billions annually. From eco-tourism (e.g. whale watching, sport fishing) to large-scale harvesting operations, fish support coastal livelihoods, food sustainability, and ecosystem resilience world-wide.  

Fish move to survive—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Sometimes they move across geopolitical boundaries that make monitoring and conservation measures all the more difficult, e.g. sharks that are protected in Canada are not protected in other parts of the world where they regularly migrate. 

Almost a decade ago, the Canadian government launched the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN), an ambitious pairing of research and infrastructure that would help unite a global network of scientists in tracking commercially and culturally important, and endangered species.

Summary of OTN Canada’s key achievements by the numbers in the context of OTN global activities as of December 2018.

Read: 10 years of OTN research

Network design

The beginning of OTN Canada addressed one multifaceted question across Canada’s three oceans: what are the movements of continental shelf marine animals and what are the consequences of environmental changes on these species’ interactions, distributions and abundances? 

As the Network grew, specific framework questions expanded the research within Canada 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 between researchers and laboratories, training opportunities for students, as well as novel technology.


The success of OTN’s unique partnership-building model has been mirrored by partner organizations (e.g. iTag, European Animal Telemetry Network) also working to harmonize the vast amounts of aquatic research and animal tracking data 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. 

Summary of key achievements within the OTN Canadian and global networks.

Technology innovation

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 patrols the waters of the Northwest Atlantic, piloted by a team of glider experts who are leading the creation of the Canadian Glider Network, headquartered on Canada’s east coast. 

New tags have advanced the concept of mobile tracking to include large aquatic animals capable of documenting interactions with their surroundings, including environmental conditions and other tagged animals.

Miniaturized tags (4mm) are tracking salmon at a critical life stage when salmon migrate from rivers to the open ocean. 

Network impact

Part of OTN’s research model is 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 make better use of the information collected. 

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. 

To date, OTN has generated an expansive amount of research on the distributions of aquatic species relative to environmental conditions. Many studies layered additional methods on telemetry research such as genomics, isotope analysis, energetics, and laboratory sampling. Documenting the movements of freely moving animals in an environment that’s not readily accessible was considered expensive and unlikely, 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.

Read the full issue here: The Ocean Tracking Network: Advancing frontiers in aquatic science and management

Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences (May 20, 2019)

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