New AI innovations are beginning to automate and enhance the protection of fisheries, the identification of pollution hotspots, and facilitate early warnings of natural disasters.

With the scale of concerns facing our oceans today, new sustainable initiatives can often feel like a mere drop in the ocean. The sheer vastness and inaccessibility of the oceans has so far limited scientific study, but AI could help to change this by ensuring that each drop in the ocean has positive ripple effects, encouraging new discoveries and actions.

AI could be a real turning point for the ocean, as it can accelerate the rate of discovery and data collection for conservation efforts. Top companies and universities are creating new technologies as proof of concepts that can be built upon in the years to come.

What Does the Ocean Mean for Us? 

The oceans are crucial for life on Earth, yet at least 80% of the oceans remain unmapped and unexplored. This means that in reality scientists know more about the surface of Mars and Venus than we do about the waters on our own planet.

A stronger focus on the oceans is needed, since life below the surface produces more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe, provides critical food sources and offers protection against natural disasters. Today the world’s oceans are threatened by a number of stressors including overfishing, pollution, and climate change.

The ocean provides food, energy, water, jobs and economic benefits for people in every country, even those that are landlocked. It is a crucial buffer against climate change, and a massive resource for sustainable development. The health of our oceans and seas is inextricably linked with the health of our planet and all life on Earth.

H.E. António Guterres United Nations Secretary-General

Protecting Fisheries – Data Collection for Added Accountability 

Three billion people around the world rely on ocean fisheries as their main source of protein and it is an important job sources for vulnerable communities. The ocean’s biodiversity is critical to humanity’s food system and cultural traditions, yet resources are being wasted by overfishing. Modern fishing vessels are capturing fish far faster than their populations can replenish, and illegal fishing only compounds the problem. In fact, nearly 90% of fish stocks are at risk of being totally depleted.

Emerging AI technology can help to detect and prevent illegal fishing. Global Fishing Watch is building a network monitoring system to increase transparency for large fishing vessels. Currently they have over 5,000 vessels being monitored, and the data collected is being used to determine where governments should be establishing Marine Protected Areas for conserving focus stocks. Spanish startup, Satlink, is using AI to collect data on catchments and releases to hold fishing boats accountable to their catches and quotas. Other groups are working on using drones to identify and video record boats that are illegally fishing. AI automation allows for enhanced transparency in the fishing industry, without increasing the amount of time and labour required for monitoring or auditing.

Assessing Pollution Levels – Automation for Early Detection

An estimated 8 billion kg of plastic waste flows from coastal regions into the oceans every year. The first step to addressing a problem is to understand it, and AI can help with this. Drones powered by AI algorithms are now scanning the ocean to map plastic pollution hotspots. The next step is using the information gathered on the pollution to actually clean the water. Early studies are exploring how to use nanobots to filter out microplastic, lead and other waste from human industrial activities.

AI can also measure and assess water quality. Microscopic plankton species are key indicators for ocean pollution levels, since small changes in their health can point to much larger water quality issues. They are also the base of the ocean food chain, so the fisheries our society depends on are reliant on plankton. IBM is developing autonomous microscopes that assess the health of plankton in their natural environment, while aggregating data on a cloud based network. They are also exploring adapting the technology to provide early detection for oil spills and red tides (a consequence of algal blooms and a sign of toxicity in the water). AI has made it possible to monitor the health of the ocean in real-time, allowing for more timely preventive action.

Climate Adaptation – Forecasting for Preventative Action 

Though a major source of life, the ocean can also be a dangerous and destructive force. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and the key to preparing ourselves may lie in the ocean. AI sensors are being tested by Liquid Ocean, an offshoot of Boeing Company, to provide early warnings of hurricanes from ocean indicators, which is an important aspect of adapting to climate change. Other ventures are exploring using AI to efficiently assess the damage of climate change, such as quantifying the rate of coral reef bleaching. Climate change is rapidly changing the ocean and how it impacts society, and AI can help us to stay up to date and prepared to adapt.

The ocean has long been a challenge for scientists, but developments in AI for the ocean may add another tool to their belt, helping to scan the oceans and delivering new insights on how to protect ourselves and life below water from environmental threats. AI may provide us with key conservation insights, enhanced accountability, and earlier notifications for disaster preparedness. There is still a long way to go, but at Sustainia it is our hope that support for these technologies can be scaled up, so that the potential of AI can be used to support healthier oceans and a healthier world.

Want to learn more about AI? Read our article “Can Ethics Make AI And Humans Good Friends?

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Sustainia is a global sustainability advisory firm that specialises in ESG & impact technology. Headquartered in Copenhagen, with a global reach, we research and develop new insights and market opportunities. Sustainia is a co-founder of the Global Opportunity Explorer, the world’s largest platform for vetted and verified sustainable solutions, and serves as a matchmaker between business solutions and global challenges.

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