Counting real fish in virtual space

Figuring out the health of an ecosystem takes days and days of dirty, difficult fieldwork. You pretty much crawl around in the dirt/mud/mussels, counting all the wee beasties. This is even harder in marine ecosystems, where specialized equipment like boats and nets and dives are needed. (Diving is lots of fun until the 5th hour-long dive in 50 degree water with urchin spines stuck in your knuckles.) And all of this is pretty expensive – just the gasoline to run a small coastal boat can be $100/day, and an oceanographic vessel STARTS at $10,000 per day.

So the idea that the health of ecosystems could be monitored using Teh Powerz of Teh Internets is most intriguing. From an article in Wired Science (sadly, I don’t have access to the original paper):

By trawling scientific list-serves, Chinese fish market websites, and local news sources, ecologists think they can use human beings as sensors by mining their communications.

“If we look at coral reefs, for example, the Internet may contain information that describes not only changes in the ecosystem, but also drivers of change, such as global seafood markets,” said Tim Daw, an ecologist at the UK’s University of East Anglia in a press release about his team’s new paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Like having recreational fishers monitor their catch via Twitter, I think this has great potential for conspicuous, charismatic shallow water species. For example, tropical groupers are targeted for fishing and for recreation, all of whom like to post about catching/eating/viewing a grouper. There might also be potential for identifying emerging fisheries – though of course that hinges on the internets correctly identifying the species, and fish mislabeling is rampant.

But there are obvious limitations. Not all important predators are conspicuous – for example, I can’t imagine that too many random people on the internet are writing about seeing 3-inch predatory marine worms. And as the Wired article points out, people just aren’t very attuned to ecological changes:

In other words, while reporters (or Tweeters) will include individual-level death data in human stories, massive die-offs or flora changes could very well go unnoticed and probably unquantified.

However much I love the internets, crawling the Web can’t take the place of crawling through the mud. Subtle effects like species changes – for example, cold-water barnacles retreating and warm-water barnacles advancing – just can’t be detected without Ye Olde Fieldwork. But I think ecological datamining is absolutely worth trying. If it works, even for just a few species, the speed of detection and low cost could make it incredibly valuable.

Thanks to Serin for the Wired article!

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5 Responses to Counting real fish in virtual space

  1. i like the data mining idea for all the reasons you mention (mostly cost and labor savings) but i’m equally dubious that it should/will supplant field ecological assessment…

    this all sounds like a meta-analysis… and the same limittation of meta-analysis in clinical health studies would apply in ecological monitoring…

    for example, meta-analysis cannot improve the quality or reporting of the original studies… other limitations come from misapplications of the method, such as when study diversity is ignored or mishandled in the original study or when the variability of populations, the quality of the data, and the potential for underlying biases of sampled data are not addressed…

    i think this virtual monitoring can be another data point (such as how citizen science data is now being incorporated in coral reef research projects by groups like reef check and reef) for professional scientists and resource managers…

  2. Jason R says:

    Makes me think of all those intrepid TomTom/Garmin GPS users that daily ground truth their data sets. Sometimes right off the cliff.

  3. Good point – and datamining is arguable more unreliable than meta-analyses. Meta-analyses have some built-in quality control since they are based off the peer-reviewed literature, while stuff on Twitter has none.

  4. eheupel says:

    Like you say there is no replacing field experience and gettin dirty…which brings out a different related question. With meta-analysis of other studies there is a trail to follow, where you can assess the limitations of earlier studies. With this would we have that? I mean from the reef studies and bird citizen science they have a pretty good idea of the accuracy, but here you are talking about several different sources each with different information biases which could make things very interesting. Promising but I think there will be several GPS off cliffs trying to tease out correlations.

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