Amid a government drive to unlock the economic potential of the oceans, an innovative offshore research programme involving annual deep sea expeditions, hopes to guide the associated protection of rich, biodiverse and fragile marine eco-systems.
Talking at the launch of the 2017 Ocean Stewards programme at Grindrod on Saturday, head of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife scientific services, Dr Jean Harris said increased industrial activity was at the core of Operation Phakisa (“hurry up”) – a government initiative that intends to fast-track offshore gas and oil mining exploration, and also bolster shipping, aquaculture and ocean-related tourism ventures.
“Thankfully through Operation Phakisa there is also recognition that commercial practices need to be environmentally sustainable,” said Harris. “One of mechanisms to achieve this is to expand the network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) which would then become no-go areas for commercial operations,” said Harris.
She said a forthcoming Ocean Stewards expedition would focus two areas: the uThukela Banks north of Durban, and the Protea Banks about 8 km offshore of Margate on the South Coast.
“The gas and oil industry have already got their eyes all over uThukela Banks,” said Harris. The prawn trawling industry is also already active in the area.
“So we are going out to discover exactly drives the specialness of these areas,” said Harris. “If we can show decision makers what is happening down there – at depths never surveyed before – we could influence what happens to these rich, biodiverse and fragile marine eco-systems.”
Harris said on previous Ocean Stewards expeditions, scientists had already discovered several fish species never recorded before in South Africa. Recent multi-beam geology surveys off the Protea Banks, 8 km off Margate, had also revealed the existence of deep, ancient canyons.
“We could find coelacanths down there like we did in Sodwana,” said Harris, referring to the first ever recorded sightings of live coelacanths, once thought to be extinct, off Sodwana Bay in October 2000.
The associated video footage of these sightings rocked the marine science fraternity worldwide giving birth to the Africa Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme – a flagship programme of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF), both of which also support the Ocean Stewards programme. – Fred Kockott and Zamo Phungula
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Fascinating new discoveries of abundant ocean life at depths between 80 – 150 metres are being made on each Ocean Stewards expedition along the KZN coastline. Photos supplied by AECEP Spatial Solutions research project.