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Making the invisible visible

Billions of people depend on the biological diversity of the oceans. However, the underwater world is increasingly at risk, particularly coral reefs. Innovative monitoring methods, such as those developed by the Zurich-based start-up Stream Ocean, are becoming increasingly important in protecting them.

Covering over 70 percent of the Earth's surface with approximately 360 million square kilometres, the oceans are deeper in some places than Mount Everest is high. They provide a habitat that has evolved over millions of years for an estimated two million species of organisms: oceans constitute the largest ecosystem on our planet. For a long time, this marine world remained virtually hidden from humans. Even today, more than 80 percent of the waters remain unexplored.

However, what is emerging is alarming. There are significant changes indicating that the biodiversity of the world's oceans, which is the livelihood of three billion people, is increasingly at risk. Controversial fishing methods by the fishing industry have already contributed to the destruction of many habitats. Since 1970, global fish stocks have declined by about half. Climate change and the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are also posing a significant threat to the oceans and their inhabitants. Water temperatures are rising, sensitive systems are being disrupted, CO2 is increasing the acidity of the water, and melting polar ice caps are reducing salinity. In addition, there is immense pollution that even remote coastlines are not spared from. Plastic waste, especially microplastic particles, is a major concern as they are ingested by marine animals and enter the food chain.

The increasing threat to the ocean ecosystem is particularly evident in the phenomenon of coral bleaching. 90 percent of reefs are at risk of dying, and many are already destroyed worldwide. This has enormous consequences because about a quarter of all marine species depend on coral reefs, including 4,000 fish species.

Data from the underwater world

"To preserve and sustainably use our oceans and marine resources, better monitoring solutions are urgently needed," believes Stream Ocean, a start-up from Zurich. Under the motto "Making the invisible visible," the ten-member expert team has taken up the challenge and developed a groundbreaking end-to-end solution: a relatively easy-to-install system consisting of three underwater cameras and data analytics supported by artificial intelligence. With the help of this innovative technology, live-streamed video and sensor data from the seafloor can be captured, evaluated in real-time, and displayed on a dashboard 24/7. This process is intended to benefit projects that respond to the loss of biodiversity, including companies, research institutions, non-governmental organisations, and governments, particularly in measures to restore coral reefs. "We are convinced that a new paradigm of ocean monitoring is necessary to effectively utilise and deploy capital for such projects," says David Lunsford, CEO and founder of Stream Ocean.

In particular, in the aquatic environment, the monitoring techniques used so far "are by no means comprehensive and often outdated," he explains. It should be noted that monitoring biodiversity has a long history. In the 1970s and 1980s, concerns about the drastic decline in fish populations led to the development of new monitoring methods. With technological advancements, additional approaches and technologies have been added over time, continuously improving the accuracy and efficiency of monitoring. The range of commonly used methods today includes visual surveys by professional observers, the use of acoustic sensors and baited remote underwater video systems, and specific environmental DNA analyses. However, most of these methods are either very labor-intensive and expensive or invasive to the environment. "Each of these methods has strengths and weaknesses overall," says Lunsford. "With the solution we have developed, we aim to fill the gaps in existing monitoring techniques."

The greatest challenges of the currently available monitoring methods we have encountered so far have been the costs, the lack of data consistency, and the low stakeholder engagement.
- Ahmad Allahgholi, Founder and Director of Coralive

Image recognition enhanced

Thanks to Stream Ocean's procedure launched in 2022, it is now possible to consistently monitor marine projects based on consistent and comparable data over an extended period and across different locations. This includes coral reef restoration, aquaculture, and the impact assessment of environmental measures. This not only promotes effective ocean protection but also provides decision-makers with valuable information on best practices, according to Stream Ocean.

The method developed by the Swiss start-up utilises technological advances in image recognition and claims to be the first to autonomously power underwater cameras, connect them to the internet, and use artificial intelligence to ensure the continuous monitoring of marine creatures. "This system has the potential to revolutionise the way we monitor and manage fish populations and could contribute to ensuring the long-term sustainability of marine ecosystems," says Lunsford. "By providing detailed data on fish populations, we can make informed decisions within conservation and management strategies that contribute to the protection and restoration of the biodiversity of aquatic ecosystems."

Stream Ocean's objective is to develop a long-term underwater monitoring instrument capable of continuously collecting data on a specific location or habitat without the presence of a human observer influencing the behavior of the monitored species.

Original article by David Schnapp published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Saturday, 24th June, 2023. Translated from German.

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Stream Ocean is an environmental technology company launched in 2022. We are creating an AI-powered biodiveristy monitoring solution. Join us in our effort to accelerate ocean health and science.
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