WWF and WCS share a new tool for studying—and saving—coral reefs

Staghorn Coral Antonio Busiello WW1105624

Coral reefs are as vulnerable as they are beautiful; climate change is warming ocean waters and devastating reefs globally. A majority of the world’s coral reefs could experience severe bleaching and death by the end of this century, according to a report on the impacts of climate change. Bleaching occurs when above-average sea temperatures or other stressors disrupt coral’s healthy relationship with the algae that lives within its tissue. When stressed, the corals push out their algae, causing them to turn white and leaving it much more vulnerable to disease and death.

Monitoring the health and resilience of coral reefs is a lengthy and slow process—an unfortunate reality given how quickly our planet is warming. It can take years to organize, analyze, and share the data gathered underwater. That’s why WWF is turning to an innovative tool that speeds up the collection of valuable coral reef data and allows scientists to share new information sooner.

The Marine Ecological Research and Monitoring Aid—known as MERMAID—is a web-based tool that scientists everywhere can use, free of charge, to record valuable coral reef data both online in the office and offline on the boat. Observations are entered directly into the application rather than traditional software like Excel. MERMAID is uniquely able to “proof-read” this data, resolving mistakes and generating clean, ready-to-use datasets. This saves researchers months of painstakingly reviewing their data for errors and inconsistencies, and helps them make decisions to protect coral reefs more quickly.

Epeli Loganimoce surveys a branching Acropora coral as part of the field monitoring practice during the MERMAID workshop.

“You have a very HAPPY survey team entering their data in MERMAID! It is only the first night, but you have a lot of smiling scientists, grateful for the immense work you have done to bring MERMAID together.”

Yashika Nand
WCS Fiji

Developed by WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and SparkGeo, MERMAID organizes users into projects where data can be organized and accessed across partner institutions. Users can share summaries of data from their MERMAID projects around the world to inform others and inspire collaboration.

MERMAID must be easy to use in order to succeed. In December 2018, more than a dozen marine scientists from non-profits and governments participated in a user summit in Fiji to learn how to use the tool and improve their underwater monitoring skills. Participants also provided feedback on what they like about the tool, what needs improvement, and what new features could be added to make the MERMAID even better.  The event also sparked exciting conversation about coastal conservation in Fiji and helped conservationists make new connections with others in their line of work.

With the fate of coral reefs on the line, WWF and its partners have exciting plans for putting MERMAID to use in making faster and better conservation decisions in 2019. The application will soon be able to conduct basic analyses on datasets and produce graphs, reports, and maps. These tools will be pivotal to the speed at which researchers communicate with conservation managers, policy makers, and local communities. There is still hope for the future of coral reefs, and technologies like MERMAID can help us keep pace with a changing world.