Hi-tech ocean testing

Last updated 09:40 08/07/2013
 A H Reed
BOBBING ALONG: The Hawqi buoy on location in Hawke's Bay.

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New Zealand is surrounded by ocean, but surprisingly little is known about the health of our coastal waters. Now, using technology developed in Nelson, councils throughout the country are trying to change that.

For the past two years, a buoy known as Tascam has been inconspicuously bobbing in the Tasman Bay. It may just look like a souped-up buoy to passing boaties, but it represents the next step in better understanding our marine environment and is the first link in what could some day be a national coastal observation network.

Tascam collects information on a number of environmental parameters, from currents to temperature to salinity, and relays that information back to shore.

The information is then uploaded onto the Cawthron Institute's and Tasman District Council's websites, so that it can be used by planners, scientists, fishermen, marine farmers and others.

Tascam is the first long-term, near real-time monitoring system in New Zealand dedicated to providing openly accessible information on our coastal waters.

It's the result of a collaborative effort between the Cawthron Institute and the United States-based Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

The philosophy behind Tascam is to build a better understanding of what is happening in our marine environment and to make that information available to people who need it, when they need it, says Cawthron scientist Chris Cornelisen.

"The immediacy of the data retrieved from Tascam means that it can be used, for example, to alert a fisherman that the water temperature is ideal for catching a certain species or to advise marine farmers of the presence of a plankton bloom."

Tascam provides continuous information on the conditions in Tasman Bay, which is crucial for informed planning and coastal management, but it's the ability to find out what's happening in the bay at any given moment that has proven to be an obvious benefit to coastal users.

Charter boat owner and operator Rod Stuart relies on Tascam to check the wind direction and speed before going out to sea. It has become as much a part of his routine as listening to the daily weather forecast and checking his vessel's instruments and gauges.

"I'm in the business of giving people an experience of a lifetime, by taking them to Abel Tasman National Park. Information from Tascam gives me a fuller picture of what's happening on the water and that gives me and my passengers the ability to make better decisions."

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Following on the successful deployment of Tascam, MBARI scientists came to New Zealand in 2012 to work with their colleagues at Cawthron on a 30-day trial of an environmental sample processor (ESP) that was placed alongside Tascam.

The ESP is an "at-sea laboratory" that can be remotely operated to detect DNA gene products, including bacteria from animal faeces and phytoplankton that can lead to harmful algal blooms and human health issues.

The ESP technology has incredible potential for aquaculture, says Marlborough Shellfish Quality Programme manager Helen Smale.

She co-ordinates the water and shellfish sampling and testing programme for its shellfish farming members in the top of the South Island and says water quality is crucial to this sector.

"Results from the trial suggest that the ESP could allow for a more targeted response to environmental conditions. For a marine farmer to know, for example, when a harmful bloom is occurring will have incredible benefits for the aquaculture industry, New Zealand exports and consumers."

Cawthron scientist Paul Barter was instrumental in bringing the Tascam and ESP systems to New Zealand. He says Cawthron's vision is for a national network of these hi-tech buoys all along New Zealand's coast, to help build an accurate picture of what's happening in our coastal environment.

"This technology means there is the potential to make much more informed decisions on managing our marine resources, something that up until now hasn't really been feasible."

Through its internal research investment programme, Cawthron has spent more than $250,000 on developing Tascam and trialling an ESP in New Zealand waters.

The investment programme supports projects that align with Cawthron's purpose to add value in an environmentally responsible way to New Zealand's business and community. It is envisioned that Tascam and other similar systems will feed into a national coastal observation network.

It's an idea that's gaining traction with councils and coastal users alike. The Tasman District Council has provided support for Tascam since it was installed in 2011 and late last year.

The Hawke's Bay Regional Council placed a similar coastal monitoring buoy, known as the Hawqi (for Hawke's Bay water quality information) offshore from Whirinaki. The Waikato Regional Council also plans to deploy a system modelled off Tascam in the Firth of Thames.

The technology will be an integral part of regional monitoring and a marine management model that is being developed for a wide range of applications, including monitoring water quality and identifying potential coastal hazards.

Our marine environment is under increasing pressure because of runoff from land-based activities such as farming and development, along with activities such as aquaculture in our coastal waters, says Waikato Regional Council scientist Hilke Giles.

The cumulative effects of these activities can affect water quality.

"We can't measure the effects of activities, however, unless we have baseline data - what's ‘normal'. In the marine environment, obtaining this data is particularly challenging because of all the natural variables, such as weather, seasonal changes, upwellings and climatic events.

"To get a good picture of an area, data collection needs to be continuous and over a long period of time, so that we are able to see trends and changes.

Taking water samples a few times a year isn't really enough to help us understand what's happening, which is why Tascam and ESP technology are so useful.

"Technologies like Tascam and ESP provide us with the ability to monitor our coastal environment in a way that was not possible before," Giles says.

"The next step is to incorporate these technologies into how we manage our resources."

The data from Tascam is transmitted to shore using radio frequency via tower space leased from the Nelson City Council.

This means information is downloaded both reliably and economically, Barter says, but the real innovation happens below the water.

"Instead of having to attach our monitoring instruments to anchor cables and then rely on data cabling to retrieve information, we use inductive technology, where data flow through the same cable that moors the buoy to the seafloor. The approach lets us ‘talk' to individual instruments and obtain the data remotely."

  • Science Matters was contributed by the Cawthron Institute.

- Nelson

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