How do smartphones help aquatic megafauna?
Why a mobile app to monitor the megafauna?
African Marine Mammals Conservation Organization works to further the conservation of the marine megafauna along the coast of Cameroon. One of the methods used is based on the citizen science approach that involve local communities, in particular, fishermen. The fishers are also engaged in the conservation process. Before 2015, we trained fishermen to collect data using sheets of paper which we realized were not accurate since the sheets sometimes got wet from sea water, they were cumbersome to use and the data gathering was biased. As a result, the decisions and actions that resulted from the data were also biased. As a solution to this problem and thanks to the support of Small Grant Program of IUCN, AMMCO developed in 2015 a mobile application called SIREN which is currently used by some fishermen and scientists to remotely report opportunistic sightings of the aquatic megafauna. As such, for each information recorded in SIREN, the data is automatically sent to AMMCO's online server.
The application is used by the fishermen all along the 402 km coastline of Cameroon. The north coast network that runs from Cameroon's border with Nigeria to the Moungo River; the network of the central coast, consisting of two groups, one in the wouri estuary and the other in the lower Sanaga watershed; and the network of the south coast, also made up of two groups, one that goes from the Lokoundje river to the Lobe river and the other group goes from the Lolabe to Campo. The link http://siren.ammco.org/web/en/ shows the online map giving the locations where animals were spotted as well as their state, either alive or dead and a lot more information.
The map below shows the distribution of aquatic animals reported by our network along the coast of Cameroon between September 2018 and September 2019; it also reflects areas along the coast where our network is active.
Figure 1: Zones of SIREN network
Why is aquatic fauna important?
The marine megafauna includes animals from marine ecosystem that weigh at least 40 kg in their adult stage. On the Cameroon coast, the principal groups that we find include sea turtles, cetaceans, sharks, rays, and manatees. They play an important role in maintaining the healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs, providing key habitat for other marine life, helping to balance marine food webs and facilitating nutrient cycling from water to land. It is a source of income through ecotourism. However, they face a high level of threat from bycatch, poaching, pollution, wild meat trade, human-wildlife conflict, and plastic pollution. These and more are the reasons why it is important to improve our knowledge in order to reinforce the management or conservation plan.
How does the app work?
To achieve the goal of conserving marine megafauna, AMMCO has based its strategy of citizen science using SIREN, an application that runs on Android and Windows platforms, available and free to download from mobile app stores. It is simple to use: the fisherman downloads the app and installs it on his Android phone. He registers then logs in by entering a username and password. Students, scientists, tourists can also use the app. Once registered, the user can use the application anytime and anywhere. For the specific case of the fishermen, during their activity, they snap photos of the animals or a sign that shows their presence.
To upload the information, the app requires to turn on location and internet access. It can be used offline too. The user opens the application and chooses ‘animal’ if the animal sighted is alive, ‘threat’ if it is dead or ‘sign of presence’. The application automatically directs the user to select the species and the nature of the threat if applicable. The last step is to validate the information. After validation by the fisherman, the information is submitted to an administrator for screening in order to make sure that there is no mistake. The administrator then validates the information that then becomes available online on the AMMCO SIREN website. The data includes the state of animal or sign of presence, the species, the location, the time and date as well as the name of the observer.
Our achievement so far
To date, our network has reported nearly 5000 observations of dead and live aquatic animals including manatees, cetaceans, sea turtles, crocodiles, sharks, rays and various species of fish. The report rate of our fishers has drastically increased to about 600 observations per month (Figure 2) since the expansion of the network all along the coast of Cameroon thanks to the support of the National Geographic Society and the Sea Of Change Foundation. Nearly 1500 of these observations were simultaneously shared on iNaturalist, a larger scale citizen science platform gathering observations all around the world. The iNaturalist platform also has a large community of biologist experts who help in identifying species based on the photos uploaded by users. SIREN observations identified by iNaturalist identifier community include 10 species reptiles, 69 species of ray-finned fish, 18 species of elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), seven species of aquatic birds and six species of marine mammals. Most of the observation reported are dead animals (figure 1) and this is because those are easy to report compared to living animals that are cryptic as they live underwater.
Why are these observations important?
Very little is known about the aquatic life (fauna and flora) of Cameroon. The underwater life in Cameroon as of many African countries are unexplored; as a result, the public and government interests for these species are very low. Yet, species living in this habitat are highly impacted mostly by fisheries, pollution and climate change. AMMCO through SIREN would like to flip this situation around by shedding light upon the variety of aquatic species that inhabit our coast, documenting the threats they are facing and use all this information to raise awareness and advocate to better protect the aquatic wildlife and habitat. The challenge is big but together we can always do more and go further. We are very grateful to our amazing fishers who voluntarily contribute to the knowledge of the aquatic wildlife. Finally, because the observations provided by fishers include geographical localizations, we are able to determine hotspots of species presence and threats. Such hotspots will be prioritized in our future conservation efforts. Similarly, the App also helps determine, what threats are more impactful on a given species. We can only fight something we know; therefore, having a better knowledge of the threats will help us to address them more efficiently.
AMMCO’s short-term goal is to continue to improve the SIREN App and platform, make it more and more attractive and useful to fishermen. This includes adding functionalities like digital compass to the App that will help them navigate easily when at sea. We are also planning to create a virtual market on the SIREN App that will help our fisher users to sell their fish. Our other short-term goal is consolidating the information collected so far and share it with the public, scientists and decision makers to raise awareness on the status of the species. On a long-term, AMMCO endeavors to expand its network across the coasts of African countries were aquatic wildlife is poorly known and threatened.
Summary of recent observations:
The figure below present the information reported monthly by SIREN from September 2018 to September 2019.
Figure 2: Number of information reported monthly through SIREN app from september 2018 to september 2019.