Big Data in the Conservation of Endangered Sharks

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More than a thousand species of sharks and rays in fresh and marine waters of the world are now facing the risk of extinction due to habitat loss, overfishing, and other threats. Although the majority of the human population thinks that sharks are dangerous or man-eating machines, they are actually important to the fish populations and human livelihood. Most sharks are likewise ranked at the top of the food chain so losing them would represent a big loss, said marine biologist Fran Cabada via BBC.

Big data analytics in marine conservation

Today, evidence suggests that endangered sharks and rays can now be protected from threats using technology, particularly of big data. American multinational IT company IBM defines big data as the data sets with type and size that is beyond the capacity of traditional databases to manage, capture, as well as process. Big data usually comes from video or audio, sensors, transactional applications, social media, web, networks, social media, and log files. Ocean conservation and advocacy organization Oceana’s Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy Maria Jose Cornax also recently said via the daily that the future of marine conservation will be predictive models using big data to forecast outcomes. Each model is usually made up of predictors, which are considered as variables that may influence the results of forecast or study. The use of technology, she added, will help people prevent damage in the ocean even before it occurs.

Interactive global map

In 2017, for instance, UC Santa Barbara’s marine biologist Douglas McCauley and his colleagues have developed an interactive global map called Global Fishing Watch to track the fishing vessels using automatic identification system signals. The technology enabled them to track commercial fishing vessels wherever they may be in the world. In such a platform, users can download data to know about the present and past activities of the fishing boats. McCauley also wrote in Yale Environment 360, an American magazine focused on environmental journalism, that the use of technology will allow people to watch if someone is starting a seabed mining exploration and observe if cargo ships are overlapping with the pathways of whale migration. He added that instead of just seeing the world’s ocean as a “hole of data,” the challenge is to find out methods to efficiently and intelligently sift through the big data points. After all, the endangered species conservation group World Wildlife Fund reminded the audience that sharks, being majestic predators, are so important in the marine ecosystem. It told its readers that demand has now increased for sharks’ meat and fins, causing the urgency of illegal fishing.

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McCauley went on that the question that remains today is whether the governments will also realize the potential of data and how it can be used properly. With Cornax’s approach, it will be data from the satellites that scan the oceans. If birds, turtles, and whales are now being monitored using satellites from space, then there is a possibility that the same technique can be used in conserving sharks.

Satellite data and shark monitoring

Satellites that are scanning the globe can examine many factors, including the ocean’s salinity and temperature. These factors affect the movement of sharks in the ocean. If experts can mine such data, this means that the endangered species can better be protected. Patrol boats, for instance, can be directed to locations where there may be a risk of illegal fishing or where it may pose a threat to the sharks. At the same time, satellite imagery can be used to detect the population size of penguins and whales.

The actual application of satellite imagery and big data

Last November, UK scientists from the British Antarctic Survey used high-resolution satellite images to count whales. The imagery, taken from 620 km up the ocean, is said to be clear enough to capture the shapes of species in the ocean. If in the past years people count whales from a high sea-cliff or in boats, the UK team counted the species from satellite images by relying on features, such as flukes and flippers, they see in the satellite imagery. Tagging sharks and marking the area they inhabit

Meanwhile, in a separate study titled Potential Detection of Illegal Fishing by Passive Acoustic Telemetry, David M. Tickler from the University of Western Australia Oceans Institute and the group used acoustic tagging to gather data. They tracked silvertip and grey reef sharks in British Indian Ocean Territory to study the movement of the sharks in the said protected area. Such tags, they said, can detect illegal fishing activities in real time.

They wrote in their research that acoustic tags will produce information if the tagged animals are within the range of the unit, which records the unique code of the tag, as well as the sensor data and the time stamp. So, they can likewise monitor when the tagged animal leaves the monitored area by using the location and number of receivers together with the detection range.

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