E-tracking marine predators to protect Southern Ocean’s rich feeding grounds

ENVIRONMENT

It’s no secret that climate change, overfishing and pollution are changing the world’s oceans and  that certain key areas need to be protected. But identifying these areas is difficult, especially in the most remote waters on Earth.

Scientists working in the icy Southern Ocean circling Antarctica came up with a unique solution to this problem.

Working together over the past two years, more than 70 scientists involved in Southern Ocean research — including South Africans — gathered and shared electronic tracking data for 17 species of seabirds and marine mammals. The study was based on the understanding that marine predators go where the food is — if several predator species are going to the same areas, it’s likely to be an area of ecological significance. 

“Predators are very good at identifying and targeting productive areas. If whales, seals and penguins are all going to the same area, that’s where you’ll find a high abundance and diversity of species,” said Nelson Mandela University’s Pierre Pistorius, who heads up a South African National Antarctic Programme project tracking marine predators at Marion Island. 

Whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, albatrosses and other species were tracked using the global positioning system and satellite transmitters attached to the animals’ bodies, allowing scientists to see exactly where they travel and spend their time foraging at sea.


The scientists gathered more than 4 000 individual tracks, and published their findings in the journal Nature in March. 

“By tracking multiple species and doing some pretty complicated modelling [which included predicting movements from colonies where no animals were tracked], we were able to identify ecologically and biologically important habitats across the entire Southern Ocean, which will allow us to make very strong recommendations for their spatial protection,” said Pistorius. 

“Many of the species we tracked are threatened, so it’s vital that we protect their foraging grounds.” 

The areas identified as “areas of ecologically significance” are scattered around the sub-Antarctic islands in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and over the Antarctic continental shelf. 

The study found that some Marine Protected Areas were already within these areas, but that additional MPAs are needed.

“We need to be aware that the impact of rapid climate change, which includes melting sea-ice and changes in sea temperatures and wind speeds, will likely shift these areas.

“It’s important that we keep monitoring the physical and biological properties of the Southern Ocean so we can manage MPAs in a dynamic way. For instance, we may need to be flexible with MPA boundaries.”

Twelve Antarctic research programmes contributed to the study, which was supported by the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research, the Centre for the Analysis and Synthesis of Biodiversity in France and the World Wildlife Fund-United Kingdom. 

In South Africa, the study was supported by the National Research Foundation and the department of environment, forestry and fisheries, and included participation from the universities of Cape Town and Pretoria.

Pistorius said collaborative projects such as this one were key to addressing global problems. 

“There’s an urgent need to come up with solutions to minimise biodiversity loss, and it’s much more powerful working on a global scale than each country working independently.”

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Nicky Willemse
Nicky Willemse works from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Freelance journalist, copywriter, proofreader, editor, booklover, parent Nicky Willemse has over 43 followers on Twitter.

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

How lottery execs received dubious payments through a private company

The National Lottery Commission is being investigated by the SIU for alleged corruption and maladministration, including suspicious payments made to senior NLC employees between 2016 and 2017

Pandemic hobbles learners’ futures

South African schools have yet to open for the 2021 academic year and experts are sounding the alarm over lost learning time, especially in the crucial grades one and 12

More top stories

What the Biden presidency may mean for Africa

The new US administration has an interest and much expertise in Africa. But given the scale of the priorities the administration faces, Africa must not expect to feature too prominently

Zuma, Zondo play the waiting game

The former president says he will talk once the courts have ruled, but the head of the state capture inquiry appears resigned to letting the clock run out as the commission's deadline nears

Disinformation harms health and democracy

Conspiracy theorists abuse emotive topics to suck the air out of legitimate debate and further their own sinister agendas

Uganda: ‘I have never seen this much tear-gas in an...

Counting was slow across Uganda as a result of the internet shutdown, which affected some of the biometric machines used to validate voter registrations.
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…