/ 31 May 2019

Big thinking, big science

Professor Mike Roberts and ecoSUB - a new generation marine research robot
Professor Mike Roberts and ecoSUB - a new generation marine research robot

What is Africa doing about its oceans?

The Western Indian Ocean (WIO) region, extending up the eastern coast of Africa, has the most serious food security problem on the planet.

It is estimated that 60 million people in the WIO region directly depend on the ocean for their livelihoods at a time when the indications are that the WIO is warming faster than the world’s other oceans, which impacts all levels of the marine food web. Overfishing, destructive fishing practices and high levels of pollution are causing the WIO marine environment to deteriorate further.

What is Africa doing to address this?

“We are pursuing intensive research to understand and address the key questions of what sustains marine food security, what are the underpinning ecosystems and how do they function in this era of climate change and changing global oceans,” said marine specialist scientist Professor Mike Roberts, who heads the South African Research Chairs Initiative in Ocean Science and Marine Food Security.

“At the same time we are upscaling the number of South African, African and international scientists, PhDs and postdoctoral fellows pursuing pioneering ocean sciences research in South Africa and the WIO region.”

Launched in May 2016, the chair is jointly hosted by Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, the University of Southampton and the Southampton-based National Oceanography Centre— the United Kingdom’s leading marine science research and technology institutions.

All the way up the food chain

Roberts and his team’s Western Indian Ocean Upwelling Research Initiative is a flagship project of the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIOE-2).

Upwelling, he explains, is the upward movement of deep, cold, nutrient-rich water to the ocean surface, encouraging the growth of phytoplankton (microplants which form the base of the marine food web), which ultimately provides energy all the way up to the top marine predators. As the planet’s climate changes, so does the ocean’s upwelling system, affecting marine food security in the WIO.

Transdisciplinary research approach

“Researching this requires a transdisciplinary approach, investigating physical oceanography, biogeochemistry, plankton, trophic ecology, fisheries and food resources, and quantified by end-to-end ecosystem and socioeconomic modelling,” said Roberts. “It further requires the development and use of advanced — and costly — ocean-atmospheric computer models and big data facilities.”

Because Africa does not have these resources, Roberts’ chair has developed the Innovation Bridge-Regional Hub approach. It builds strong, formal partnerships between top institutions in Africa and top, well-resourced institutions in the global north. “Through this alliance,” Roberts explained, “we can increase southern hemisphere research capacity and critical mass to tackle developmental and ocean science challenges that are equally challenging for northern institutions, as the Indian Ocean is the least researched and understood in the world.”

The innovation bridge will have a continuous flow of people and research between the global north and Africa, with regional projects extending from South Africa all the way up Africa’s eastern coastline. The Ocean Science Campus at Nelson Mandela University, in partnership with Rhodes University — which brings fisheries science into the mix — forms the principal southern footprint of the bridge.

“Nelson Mandela University, with its African partner institutions, is focusing on growing the postgraduate ocean sciences pipeline to over 100 students, and we already have 50 master’s and PhD students registered,” said Roberts. A number of these postgraduate students have already spent time at the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre to acquire specialist technology skills.