New app lets sailors help measure health of the sea
A newly developed free mobile phone app offers seafarers the chance to help monitor the status of crucial life forms in the seas surrounding Devon and Cornwall and far beyond.
The app, which has been developed at Plymouth University, measures the amount of phytoplankton found in the water and through that the effects of climate change on the sea.
Phytoplankton are minute organisms, each smaller in diameter than a strand of human hair, at the very start of the marine food chain.
Scientists fear that the population of the microscopic beings is falling at an alarming rate due to rising sea temperatures and, if true, that could have consequences for every aspect of marine life as well as the livelihoods of people throughout Devon and Cornwall.
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“There would be much less life in the sea if the amount of phytoplankton declined. Not only would there be less fish for fishermen and anglers, but there would be fewer crabs for children to catch from harbour walls when on holiday, less starfish to watch in rock pools, and not so many worms and clams in the sand. Holidays at the seaside would be much less fun,” plankton biologist Dr Richard Kirby from Plymouth University’s Marine Institute said.
He is leading a study into the possible decline in phytoplankton. Using the mobile app, Dr Richard Kirby and his team hope to build a map that charts the seasonal and annual changes of phytoplankton from now and into the future.
At the moment, there is a lot of uncertainty about the state of phytoplankton in the world’s oceans. Dr Richard Kirby and his team hope that their new method of collecting data with the mobile app and mapping it will be able to give a clearer image of how the plankton is faring.
Phytoplankton lives near the surface of the sea. They are a deciding factor for visibility in the water, so their number can be estimated using a relatively simple method - a so-called ‘Secchi Disk’.
The Secchi Disk is a circular, 30 cm wide, flat, white disk attached to a tape measure or a rope, and weighted from below by a small 200 g weight.
By measuring how far into the water the disk goes before disappearing from sight, a sailor can find the so-called Secchi Depth.
Using the new mobile phone app, sailors can then upload the Secchi Depth, along with data about the exact location and time of the measurement, to a central database.
Over time, the database will grow, and give Dr Richard Kirby a means to measure how the phytoplankton is doing across the oceans.
“Phytoplankton primary production not only determines the amount of fish in the sea for us to harvest, but also the numbers of polar bears and whales, and sea birds in the sky above. It is as important to know about the phytoplankton in the seas off our coasts as it is to know about them in the Southern Ocean,” Dr Richard Kirby said.
“We want sailors everywhere to take part and that includes sailors in the waters of Devon and Cornwall as much as in waters around New Zealand. It really is a global project, so everyone is part of it. We also hope that fishermen will want to get involved. It is very quick and simple to take a Secchi Depth reading. We would welcome involvement form inshore potters and longliners, for example.”
More information about the project and the app itself can be found at: www.secchidisk.org