Epic KZN deep sea expedition sparks international interest

The 2017 Ocean Stewards deep-sea expedition along the KwaZulu-Natal coast comes under the spotlight at the United Nations (UN) Ocean Conference in New York today.

Sponsored by the Blue Fund – a joint initiative of the Grindrod Bank and Wildlands – the Ocean Stewards expedition forms part of a worldwide drive to establish science-based marine sanctuaries.

The expedition also provides a cohort of 17 marine biology students, mostly from the university of KwaZulu-Natal, the opportunity to gain valuable offshore research experience working alongside a team of leading marine scientists on board the 72-foot research vessel, the RV Angra Pequena.

The Angra Pequena set sail on Saturday for the first leg of the expedition skippered by Dr Jean Harris, the head of the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife scientific services division.  Within hours of docking back in Durban early Tuesday morning, Harris was on her way to New York to address the UN’s Ocean Conference about the progress  being made in identifying marine biodiversity hotspots deserving protection in KZN.

One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure that at least 10 percent of world’s coastal and marine areas are fully protected by the year 2020.

Dubbed 10×20, the UN initiative is spearheaded by the Ocean Sanctuary Alliance – a partnership of nations and leading marine scientists.

“I was asked to come and tell the South African story,” said Harris.

Although South Africa has some of the most unique and diverse marine eco-systems in the world, currently only 0,4 % is protected.

But through the government’s Operation Phakisa (hurry up) programme, various biodiversity hotspots were last year identified for inclusion in an expanded network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) covering 5 % of South Africa’s coastal and marine environment.

Harris said the Operation Phakisa initiative was unique in that it bought together a full spectrum of stakeholders committed to unlocking the economic potential of the oceans and at the same time ensuring adequate protection.

“We have been together working with the fishing, mining, shipping and aquaculture toward common goals,” said Harris. “This is a positive story that needs to be told to the world.”

“The problem is that we know a lot about what’s in our ocean up to depths of 30 m, but until we explore deeper, we can’t say what’s really down there,” said Harris.

“That’s what our Ocean Stewards expedition is all about – getting the scientific evidence to back up the declaration of MPAs. This year we are going down to depths never explored before,” said Harris.

This deep reef off Amanzimtoti at 69m is in the Twilight zone where soft corals and sponges thrive in the low light conditions. ROV photo: Ryan Palmer on board the Angra Pequena on the first leg of the 2017 Ocean Stewards expedition
Although the spotted catshark is often caught by prawn trawlers, this photo from the Angra Pequena’s ROV footage obtained during the first leg of the 2017 Ocean Stewards expedition was the first time the researchers have observed the species thriving in its natural shelf edge habitat at a depth of 240 metres.

 

This as yet undescribed soft-shelled hermit crab was captured on the Angra Pequena’s ROV at a depth of 103 m off Amanzimtoti.Harris and her team are particularly keen to ensure that deep canyons off the uThukela Banks are included in the expanded network of MPAs due to be declared by South Africa’s environmental minister, Dr Edna Molewa.

Harris and her team are particularly keen to ensure that deep canyons off the uThukela Banks are included in the expanded network of MPAs due to be declared by South Africa’s environmental minister, Dr Edna Molewa.

“We started exploring this area last year, making some fascinating discoveries. But this is a highly contested area as the gas and oil exploration guys and the prawn trawling industry have also got their eyes all over it,” said Harris.

Harris said the Ocean Stewards programme addressed the need for more scientific research surrounding the declaration of MPAs.

“It’s one thing to simply declare MPAs, but the science underpinning these declarations, is another story altogether, as is the capacity to implement them and the associated monitoring and research,” said Harris.

She said the Ocean Stewards programme addressed this.

“The young marine biologists we take with us on these expeditions are the scientists who can actually be there in 2020 doing this work.”

Vibrant, blue economy on our doorstep, says environmental affairs minister, Dr Edna Molewa.

 

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