Climate solutions

The potential of citizen science

How one leading conservationist is using crowd-sourced photography and an innovative software algorithm to help save the world’s largest fish

This article reports on the impact of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative, which supports outstanding individuals and organizations that are implementing novel solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. The initiative includes the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a program that for over four decades has recognized changemakers from around the world, including marine biologist Brad Norman, who is featured in this story.
Published in November 2020icon-clockTime to read: 4min 9s

One of marine conservationist Brad Norman’s oldest friends is a whale shark named Stumpy. The Australian first came upon Stumpy in 1995, while swimming off the western coast of the country. Norman was a recent college graduate with a budding interest in marine research and conservation. Seeing the enormous fish in the wild for the first time stopped him cold. “I [was] awestruck, watching this beautiful creature swim past,” he recalled.

The encounter was nothing short of life-changing for Norman, inspiring an enduring passion for whale sharks. For more than 25 years, the conservationist has kept tabs on his old friend—he and Stumpy swim together every year or two in the same water where they first met. Yet Norman’s ambitions go beyond a single unlikely relationship; he is on a lifetime quest to help whale sharks everywhere.

The biggest fish in the sea, whale sharks can measure up to 20 meters long and weigh 20 tons. But size doesn’t equal invincibility, and these giants, which are harmless to humans, are increasingly endangered. Norman has spent more than two decades studying them and tracking their movements in an effort to help save the species. These activities gained valuable support after the marine conservationist was honored with a Rolex Award for Enterprise. The key to his unique approach has been compiling a massive database of underwater photographs of the majestic and tranquil creatures, enlisting the assistance of ordinary people around the world.

Using satellite technology under the sea

In 1995, when Norman first met Stumpy, little was known about whale sharks. Up until the mid-1980s, less than 350 known sightings had ever been recorded. The elusive animals—whose tiny teeth only enable them to feed on small fish, shrimp and zooplankton—sometimes remain submerged in the ocean depths for months at a time. Yet as Norman embarked on his research, one thing became clear: the enormous fish was threatened by human activity.

The hulking fish can easily be snared in fishing nets as bycatch; their meat, the fins in particular, are then sold for food. Norman also cited plastic waste as a significant concern. “Marine plastics are terribly detrimental to so much of the marine environment,” he said. And whale sharks, as “filter feeders,” need a clean environment where they can source sufficient quantities of tiny prey to survive.

According to Rachel Graham, founder of the marine wildlife conservation group MarAlliance and one of the world’s leading authorities on whale sharks, climate change is another key threat. “Ocean acidification modifies food predictability and availability,” she explained, noting specifically that global warming impacts zooplankton numbers.

Norman designed his research with these challenges in mind. The program was built on a simple idea: he’d create a photo database to better monitor whale sharks, which in turn would raise their conservation profile and provide insights on how to protect them. The photos specifically document the distinctive patterns of spots and stripes behind the gills and above the pectoral fin. It can be difficult to distinguish between different sharks, said Norman, but “those marks are unique to each individual, like a fingerprint.”

With the help of another ocean conservationist and software engineer named Jason Holmberg, plus astrophysicist Zaven Arzoumanian, Norman began using a sophisticated method to sort the data. Relying on an algorithm adapted from software used to map the night sky, the team was able to make it relatively easy to identify individual sharks’ markings—the technology designed to detect stars against the backdrop of space now detecting white spots on sharkskin. “We were able to map the spots on individual whale sharks and then use a pattern-matching algorithm to run that photo against the thousands of other photos in the library to find out whether that is a match to another shark that's already in the library or a new animal entirely,” he explained.

To provide essential support and funding for his groundbreaking research, Norman was a recipient of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2006, which also enabled him to expand the scope of his nonprofit organization ECOCEAN.

A world of whale shark watchers

The team's tracking technology, however, is only as effective as the data set its working through. Put simply: lots of photos are needed to have a true global library of whale sharks. For that, Norman turned to the public. “I am a scientist, but I can only be in one place at one time,” he said. It occurred to him that if he relied on “citizen scientists,” he could have thousands of people working in the field.

According to Norman, a citizen scientist is just a regular person who’s helping to expand knowledge of the natural world; for his purposes, its anyone with a camera and the ability to upload their whale shark photos to the ever-growing database, now known as Wildbook for Whale Sharks and managed through WildMe. But getting them to participate can’t be a one-and-done proposition, he says. The idea is to get people connected to the bigger mission of conservation to protect the sharks from extinction. Those who submit photos are further engaged through regular emails and updates on the shark they identified. “It is a way of giving members of the public a bit of stewardship about the marine environment, and it is an opportunity to also educate and encourage greater awareness of ocean conservation,” he said.

It is a way of giving members of the public a bit of stewardship about the marine environment, and it is an opportunity to also educate and encourage greater awareness of ocean conservation.Brad Norman

The massive dataset—to date, tens of thousands of records, identifying more than 12,000 unique animals—also creates opportunities to appeal to key decisionmakers. Insights about migration patterns and population numbers can help guide policy action in the places where the species is most at risk.

Graham notes, however, that new regulations are only as effective as their implementation. She argues that grassroots organizations like ECOCEAN have an important role to play as a watchdog: “It’s so important to have locally based conservationists who have a long-term vested interest in ensuring that policies are translated into conservation action. They are best placed to engage positively with those who can pose the greatest threats to whale sharks.”

The next step in ECOCEAN’s work is to get much better information about how and where whale sharks reproduce. These insights could help scientists and conservationists work to more effectively stabilize populations. Yet for Norman, who now works as a research fellow at The Harry Butler Institute, Murdoch University, the motivation goes behind this vital, ongoing study; the project offers an opportunity for citizen scientists around the world to have the same type of life-changing experience that he had, some 25 years ago.

“It’s wonderful, swimming with the biggest fish in the sea,” Norman said. “I get a big smile on my face every time I get to swim with Stumpy and his mates.”

Supporting the efforts of marine conservationists

Since 1976, Rolex has supported the ingenuity of environmental leaders through their Awards for Enterprise. This effort got a boost in 2019 with the launch of Perpetual Planet, an initiative that encompasses the company’s wide-ranging efforts to support research and advocacy on environmental issues. For Rolex Awards Laureate Brad Norman, the award has been vital to supporting his wildlife conservation efforts.

Q: Go back to that moment when you received the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. What did it mean for you then to be recognized for your work in this way?

“It was one of the most amazing things that I've ever received. It was fantastic recognition for a project that has the ability to make a difference. But it also created the opportunity to take this project to the next level, and it couldn't have been done without this support from the Rolex Awards.”

Q: Have there been any collaborations that you've had with other members of the Rolex Awards Laureate network and has it helped nurture your own work in any way?

“Absolutely, that's probably one of the most amazing things—that I can draw on my collaboration with a number of other Rolex Awards Laureates. One which is ongoing is with Professor Rory Wilson in the UK. He was awarded the Rolex Award the same year as me. We started collaborating straightaway and we've continued to this day. His innovation is called the Daily Diary Tag, and it basically enables us to collect amazing information on an animal to understand certain behaviors and habitat uses.”

Q: How has the Rolex Awards helped expand your conservation efforts?

“It really enabled the idea to become a global project. It afforded me the opportunity to train people at other locations around the world to be proficient and be able to participate in the photo ID monitoring program. And now this program is the biggest in the world for monitoring whale sharks. Taking this project to the next level couldn't have been done without this support from the Rolex Awards.”

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