06/09/2015 10:12 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2016

Cameras for Conservation: New Technology Helping Developing Countries

Steve Benjamin

False Bay, South Africa is a place where a growing human population collides with a dwindling biodiversity resource. The Castle Rocks no-take zone in the Table Mountain National Park is a marine protected area (MPA), which offers a refuge for the myriad of fish hiding in its kelp forests. These reserves may be controversial, but they are one of the most important tools we have for safeguarding our rapidly disappearing natural heritage.

For scientists and resource managers, understanding the diversity and abundance of fish in our MPAs is critical to correctly design, expand and enforce a network of safe havens for vulnerable species and ecosystems. The challenge remains: how best do we monitor that? Some answers may lie in the advent of new, affordable technologies.

Outside MPAs, the story is often bleak. South Africa recently added fish from the Sparidae family to the IUCN's Red List. These species make up 25% of South Africa's commercial fish stocks and are effectively protected by MPAs like Castle Rocks. The results echoed gloomy forecasts for the global oceans: several species made it onto the list as Critically Endangered. Disconcertingly, many other species impacted by fisheries are still considered "Data Deficient" -- a neat euphemism that hides the reality of monitoring at sea. The IUCN summary is succinct -- the result of years of surveys and statistical analysis. In truth, monitoring at sea is hard and expensive, leaving many populations and regions inadequately assessed.

Of course, fish population declines are not unique to South Africa. Likewise, many of the solutions are global in their development and implementation. The creation of marine protected areas (MPAs) like Castle Rocks is one such solution. The interpretation and implementation of MPAs varies across the globe, and might mean that activities like fishing or mining are restricted or, in the case of "no-take" areas, entirely banned. Understanding how fish populations change, especially in MPAs, is a constant challenge for scientists and resource managers: the ocean is deep and vast, and creative solutions are needed to decipher its inaccessible reaches. Add to this the constraints of ever-tightening budgets and the effort required seems Herculean. Of concern for developing nations like South Africa are its severe resource limitations. These nations must balance serious socio-economic issues with equally pressing environmental concerns.

Fortunately, new technologies have brought positive opportunities for conservationists. Baited remote underwater-video systems (BRUVs) are just one such example. Developed in Australia, they are now used globally for various ocean surveys. By attracting fish in front of a remotely controlled camera, BRUVs record diversity, abundance and behaviour of species. It offers a low impact way of understanding changes in fish numbers and diversity over time.

Dr. Albrecht Götz and Dr. Anthony Bernard, scientists from the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), realised that the value of underwater cameras went beyond Jacques Cousteau's exploits and that BRUVs could be applied in South Africa. This prompted several years of research, culminating in their first camera rig. Now, as good evidence emerges from South Africa's MPAs that supports their value, a suite of techniques is required to gain a holistic picture of our changing oceans. Traditional methods are useful, but limited in scope. Catch-and-release surveys are extractive, while SCUBA surveys are limited by depth, visibility and time underwater. BRUVs can now be added to an arsenal of MPA-monitoring tools as a non-extractive option that reduces the labour required at sea and extends the depths we access.

I teamed up with SAEON and was supervised by Associate Professor Colin Attwood from the University of Cape Town. With funding from the Save Our Seas Foundation, I set out to lower the cost and labour for BRUVs in South Africa's MPAs. Scientists need to talk to practitioners, for it is ultimately the managers and rangers who are left to implement these solutions. Monitoring solutions need to consider annual budgets and the availability of skilled labour.

We developed steel rigs with GoPro cameras attached to them, buoyed off at the surface and left to film independently of the boat for one hour while resting on the seafloor. These simple and affordable units can be built for around $500. The big change? The rapid evolution of camera technology had lowered the price of cameras available to the average user. The advent of GoPros made high-quality filming a reality for surfers, divers -- and scientists. In a world where the sea often claims scientific equipment -- and in a country where costs can determine whether a project is implemented or dismissed -- affordability, replaceability and quality become key considerations in choosing technological solutions.

It's early days yet, but BRUVs surveys are happening in several MPAs. The footage, incidentally, generates public interest in hitherto inaccessible regions, and several organisations, including the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI) and South African Shark Conservancy, share their videos online. The challenge for the future? Perhaps we can look to reducing the lag time between technological innovation and its adoption by the conservation sector. Key developments in conservation science come from advances in military technology -- such as, for instance, GPS collars and radio telemetry -- but are only adopted long after their use in other realms is well established. Time is of the essence in conservation, and real value could be found in finding some common ground between scientists, of both the technological and the conservation kind.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.