Floating guardians of the Balearic Sea off Mallorca

20 brown groupers were recently swimming off Mallorca on behalf of the flag. They carry miniature sensors, and the devices collect data on environmental conditions and fish behavior. The information, in turn, is sent to the receiving stations at sea and is collected by the staff of the Research Institute Imedea in Esporles. “With this we study the effects of global warming and other factors such as sea pollution on marine biodiversity,” explains marine ecologist Josep Alós, who is leading the project with biologist Eneko Aspillaga.

Biologist Eneko Aspillaga (left) and marine ecologist Josep Alós are in charge of the project. In their hands are receptors that collect data from a grouper on the sea floor.

The duration is unusual: the project is set to run for ten years. Until then, the transmitters must remain stuck in the fish’s skin. They can, because the brown grouper, Mero in Spanish, can live up to 60 years. But this is not the only reason why researchers chose him as the floating guard of the Balearic Sea. Aspillaga explains, “Miros are an alpha predatory fish that are at the very top of the food pyramid in their ecosystem.” “They hunt their prey at the various lower trophic levels of marine communities, thus contributing to the balance of the ecosystem.” This makes the grouper an indicator of ecological quality: the more samples of this species, the richer the food under the water.

The first grouper fish were tagged in the marine protected areas of El Toro and Malgrat. To do this, the scientists caught them and carefully implanted a sensor under their skin. Biologist Aspilaga asserts that “the chips are absolutely harmless to fish.” At the same time, twelve receiving stations were connected to the seabed, which now receive data from sensors every three minutes. Temperature, location, and currents, for example, are recorded, but so are the fish’s movements, where they swim, how fast, and altitude, whether it’s calm or frenetic. “This way we can see how different factors such as sewage, ship noise or high temperatures affect biodiversity in the sea.”

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Next, the researchers will equip protected areas on Dragonera Island and Palma Bay with receiving stations and sensors. All eleven marine protected areas in the Balearic Islands will be equipped respectively, and other species will be included in the study, such as sea bream and dentex. At the same time, the Balearic network will be internationally interconnected with similar tracking systems.

Governments usually demand quick results from studies, says marine ecologist Josep Allos. But short-term projects are less feasible. “That is why it is a bold strategy to conduct long-term research.” The project is part of the Ocean Decade, announced by the United Nations with a mission to investigate in detail by 2030 how the oceans can be used more sustainably. This is exactly the goal of the project. “We are gaining solid scientific knowledge on how to promote sustainable fisheries and preserve biodiversity.”

Scientists are often told there is no more time for long-term projects because climate change is advancing so quickly, says Eniko Aspelaga. “You get that impression when you look at disaster reports around the world.” But young researchers are optimistic. “We have the time.” With its extensive marine protected areas, the Balearic Sea is unique in the world and well positioned to adapt to climate change.

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