Prize money will help protect 'predator cafes'

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California-based researchers will construct new acoustic observatories to help monitor and protect 'predator cafés' in the ocean waters off San Francisco — hotspots for sharks and other animals at the top of the marine food chain — thanks to a major prize awarded to a US-based scientist.

Barbara Block of Stanford University won the international Rolex Award for Enterprise for her work to electronically monitor more than 4,600 large ocean predators off the coast of California using satellite-based tags that enable scientists to follow large animals throughout their Pacific migrations.

The $104,000 Rolex Award will be invested in longer-lasting, less expensive acoustic tags that will work with a network of receivers communicating with satellite and cell networks.  

The receivers, both fixed at predator hotspots and attached to unmanned Wave Glider vehicles, will allow researchers to track predators in real time this summer and fall around San Francisco from Point Lobos to Tomales Point. She hopes to extend this ocean observing network down the west coast of North America.

Block, the Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Professor in Marine Sciences at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, is one of five 2012 Rolex Award laureates, a biennial award to "foster a spirit of enterprise and advance human knowledge and well-being."

For more than two decades, Block has led a cadre of scientists from around the world in two large-scale tagging programs in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, monitoring a menagerie of marine animals, including Bluefin tunas and White sharks, while serving as an advocate for ocean conservation.

Block and her colleagues have pioneered the use of electronic tags, including implantable archival tags, which are surgically implanted in tunas, and pop-up satellite archival tags, which automatically detach from animals and transmit collected data via satellite.

Building on the tags' success, Block and collaborators also launched the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) program, now in its 12th year and part of the Census of Marine Life. The TOPP team deployed more than 4,600 electronic tags on a variety of species in the North Pacific and collected nearly 300,000 days of animal tracking data, revealing previously unknown marine hotspots, migratory highways and details of ocean physics.

One of TOPP's most remarkable findings was that large predators from areas as diverse as the waters off New Zealand, Indonesia and Alaska congregate in the California Current — a productive, cold oceanic current that flows along North America's west coast from Canada to Baja. Although they may make journeys of thousands of miles into the Pacific basin, they return to the California Current repeatedly, year after year. Block has labeled the almost pristine environment "a blue Serengeti."

Block's team is also building a website and mobile app that will provide real-time updates on predator movements to the general public, using 12 years of tracking data to tell the animals' full stories.

Ultimately, the goal of the monitoring project will be to increase protection for these rich predator regions. Block and her colleagues suggested designating the hotspot regions of the California Current a UNESCO World Heritage Site in a recent paper in the journal Nature.

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