Protecting Buoys for our Safety

Damaged TAO buoy

Damaged TAO buoy, with the superstructure tilting at an angle. Source: B. Burnett, NDBC, 2009 (DBCP-25)

Ocean data buoys (moored and drifting) collect in situ oceanographic and meteorological data that are critical to a wide user community of government, academic, military, public health, emergency response stakeholders, marine transportation, tourism and fisheries industries. These observations are used in multiple applications, including to strengthen the quality and accuracy of severe and routine weather forecasting, improved coastal ocean circulation models, environmental and ecosystem monitoring and research, and tsunami warning capability. Monitoring ocean health can only be done through long-term multi-disciplinary observations, many of which are sourced from data buoys that are uniquely suited for this task. Failure to maintain a sustainable network of data buoys puts the health of our ocean and estuaries at risk.

Data buoy vandalism refers to the intentional interference with, damage to, or theft of observing platforms attributable to human action. Data buoy vandalism has been a troublesome problem for many buoy operators around the world. In addition to the significant financial impact on buoy programs and operations, vandalism disrupts vital data collection and reporting by moored and drifting buoys, placing lives, property and economies in peril.

Data buoys are deployed in every ocean, and international cooperation is implemented via the Data Buoy Cooperation Panel (DBCP), which operates under the WMO-IOC Governance. DBCP has taken the lead in reducing and mitigating buoy vandalism. A 3-pronged approach has been used to address data buoy vandalism:

  • regulatory policy and enforcement
  • engineering and technical modifications to buoy systems to enhance situational awareness and impede third party interference
  • the development and distribution of outreach and education materials on the value of ocean data buoys and the impacts of vandalism.

For a detailed overview of data buoy vandalism impacts and responses, see Ocean Data Buoy Vandalism- Incidence, Impact and Responses (DBCP Technical Document No. 41).

DBCP has published the “Outreach Strategy to Reduce Damage to Ocean Data Buoys from Vandalism” to guide development of outreach and educational resources to raise public awareness of the critical value of the services provided by ocean observation networks and warning systems, and of the related disaster risk-reduction benefits. It will help promote education and outreach, especially to recreational, artisanal and commercial fishers. It will also broaden support of community stakeholders and enable proactive engagement at regional and local scales through the development of new partnerships to share lessons learned and generate new ideas for addressing vandalism issues.

Many years of buoy vandalism information tracking has identified fishing activities as the primary cause of damage to data buoys (moored). Buoys act as fish aggregating devices (FADs), which fishing vessels exploit in pursuit of fish. This increases the incidence of direct contact between the buoys and fishing vessels. There are also rare incidences of damage from unintentional impacts such as inadvertent collision with a buoy. Drifting buoys are vandalized by picking them up from the ocean and, in some cases, when these are beached.

Buoy vandalism has been a problem since the establishment of ocean observing networks in the late 1980s. Incidences of data buoy vandalism are apparent in both ocean and coastal networks. The issue has garnered international attention because many moored buoy platforms – in the tropical Pacific, eastern tropical Indian Ocean and equatorial Atlantic Ocean – are internationally supported and provide data to the international community. Further, these networks are located outside Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) on the high seas. This means the response to vandalism events requires both national and international efforts.

Numerous local, national and international efforts have been made to educate and inform people, in particular the fishing community, about the negative consequences of data buoy losses for research; weather, climate and ocean forecasting; and tsunami warnings. These observing losses have direct impact on loss of human life and property. So far, the efforts have had limited success – they have drawn awareness to the impacts of data buoy vandalism but have not stemmed the continued loss of buoys. This global issue needs assistance and engagement at all levels – regional, national and local.

WMO released a public awareness cartoon on buoy vandalism for World Ocean Day in 2020. The video informs the public, especially in coastal small islands, about the value of buoys for understanding weather and climate and even for tsunami warning and has a straightforward message not to touch buoys. The cartoon is pitched to a broad audience and can be rolled out across social media for the public, schools and other community settings. Currently available in English, Fijian, French and Hindi to reach Pacific Island communities, the WMO intends to translate it into other languages for other regions around the world. The Fiji Meteorological Service has also provided print and DVD to remote islands where Internet connection is unreliable or unavailable.


Ocean Buoy awareness video released for World Ocean Day 2020 – public outreach to encourage people not to touch buoys.

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