Arrays will help track animals, understand their habitat needs and protect important species

Research scientists and resource managers have been tagging animal species throughout the Gulf of Mexico for years. Using acoustic and satellite tags, they have begun unlocking key information about the habitats where species spend their lives and about the threats animals face on the water.

But often, researchers have receivers in discreet areas and host data individually.

Now, a half-dozen groups are coming together to try to expand the number of underwater receivers that are in the Gulf and develop arrays in key areas to provide a better regional view of animals and their habitat use, to more widely share tracking data and to work on habitat and species restoration, especially following environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The effort is called the Integrated Tracking of Aquatic Organisms in the Gulf of Mexico — or iTAG.

This underwater acoustic receiver was deployed south of Key West this summer. Please credit image (and video) to Rachel Pawlitz, NOAA.

This underwater acoustic receiver was deployed south of Key West this summer. Please credit image (and video) to Rachel Pawlitz, NOAA.

The partnership includes the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System-Regional Association (GCOOS-RA), Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA), the University of South Alabama, Texas A&M University and the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN). Canadian-based OTN helps develop acoustic telemetry projects around the world by providing acoustic receivers and expertise. They are loaning underwater receivers worth $500,000 to FWC — which is leading the iTAG effort. Dr. Jay Rooker (Texas A&M), Dr. Will Patterson (USA) and Dr. Susan Lowerre-Barbieri (FWC) will oversee the receiver arrays deployed throughout the Gulf of Mexico and in the Florida Keys and are in the process of seeking additional funding to support this research.

Tracking animals — animal telemetry — is the science of using tags to learn about species movement and behavior and gather habitat information, including things like ocean salinity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, currents and more. Gathering this information and being able to share it more easily will play a critical role in protecting threatened and endangered species, protecting commercial fisheries, filling gaps in oceanographic knowledge and improving ocean modeling and forecasting, according to Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, GCOOS-RA Executive Director. GCOOS-RA will eventually offer a data portal where the tracking information is gathered and shared.

“Right now, we have many researchers throughout the Gulf of Mexico who are tagging various species — from sea turtles to sharks to dolphins and tuna — and following them via satellite uplinks or through underwater receivers that pick up a sound emitted by an acoustic tag. These tags are really helping us uncover the cryptic lives of marine animals that travel great distances and can be hard to track in deep water far from land,” Kirkpatrick said. “But while the tags are giving us more information about species and species survival than ever before, often researchers are hosting data on individual sites and the information they’re gathering isn’t necessarily widely available. Through iTAG and the data portal GCOOS is developing, we’re hoping to expand everyone’s ability to track animals and facilitate data sharing — especially when it comes to orphan tag data.” (Watch or download a video of the deployment. )

Orphan data occurs when a researcher picks up an acoustic signal on an underwater receiver from an animal that someone else is tracking. Right now, there’s no place to record that information and get it to the researcher who tagged that animal.

St. Petersburg, Fla., student Cory Diaz, 9, started a Crowdrise fundraising site as her community project to raise funds for iTAG. Image by Dr. Chris Simoniello, Director of Outreach and Education for GCOOS-RA.

St. Petersburg, Fla., student Cory Diaz, 9, started a Crowdrise fundraising site as her community project to raise funds for iTAG. Image by Dr. Chris Simoniello, Director of Outreach and Education for GCOOS-RA.

The development of a regional animal telemetry network in the Gulf is part of a wider national movement by the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) to develop similar systems in all of the nation’s oceans and the Great Lakes, called the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Animal Telemetry Network.

“The Gulf of Mexico is the only U.S. body of water without a large-scale animal telemetry network, despite the fact that researchers and resource managers have made a significant investment in tracking programs and hardware,” said Dr. Susan Lowerre-Barbieri, FWC research scientist who is chairing the iTAG committee. “We estimate that there are 700 receivers and more than 1,000 active tags Gulf-wide. Through iTAG, we want to develop the capability for monitoring on a regional scale, develop a fixed network of receivers and encourage all researchers working in the Gulf to share information. This will help us better understand animal migration corridors, assess the impacts of environmental disasters and help manage the sustainability of the Gulf and its species, especially those that are commercially important or protected or endangered.”

Already, one St. Petersburg, Fla., resident has seen the value of developing the new underwater arrays in the Gulf and has started her own fundraiser to support it.
Nine-year-old Cory Diaz, a Bay Point Elementary School third-grader, learned about the acoustic receivers from her mom, Dr. Chris Simoniello, Director of Outreach and Education for GCOOS-RA, and decided she wanted to raise money for animal tags for her school community service project. She created the uTAG for iTAG campaign through CrowdRise, an online fundraising site.

Her goal is to raise $20,000. “I wanted to do something good for the ocean,” she said. “I love the ocean and all the animals in it and I don’t want them getting hurt anymore. I started this project to put the ‘U’ and ‘me’ in iTAG!”