Dr Lara Atkinson aims to boost research in offshore marine environment
The SAEON Egagasini Node’s research capacity has been strengthened with the appointment of Dr Lara Atkinson as its Offshore Marine Scientist.
Having just completed her doctoral thesis on the effects of demersal trawling on marine infaunal, epifaunal and fish assemblages, Lara is no stranger to the rigours of offshore research, data collection and data analysis. She is brimming with ideas on how to expand SAEON’s repository of marine data. Describing herself as a “now” person, she has already proposed a number of projects in the two months since joining SAEON.
Many of her projects will include collaborations with government departments (Department of Environmental Affairs and Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries), parastatal organisations and universities.
Offshore sentinel sites
Lara is investigating options for establishing offshore sentinel sites. SAEON’s Elwandle Node already has a number of inshore sentinel sites that they’re investigating in Algoa Bay, and they are planning to establish several more around the coast. To complement the inshore initiative, Lara intends looking at options for offshore sites to capture long-term data that can be linked with the inshore data. On this project she’ll be working closely with Dr Wayne Goschen, the Egagasini Node’s Data Manager, who has taken a lead role in collating the inshore Algoa Bay sentinel site data.
Prof Larry Hutchings from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has collected monthly samples in the St Helena Bay region for the past consecutive ten years. He largely focuses on plankton, zooplankton and abiotic variables in the water column, yielding an important long-term data set. Lara, with Wayne’s assistance, will work with Prof Hutchings to collate, capture and make accessible this valuable data set for research.
Marine Protected Areas
Lara is also collaborating with the SANBI Marine Programme, specifically the Offshore Marine Protected Areas project. About four years ago SANBI implemented a Marine Programme under the leadership of Dr Kerry Sink, a component of which aimed to engage with offshore industries, government and civil society groups to identify potential areas for protection. Dr Sink’s approach has been to conduct a systematic spatial assessment of the offshore marine environment, which includes collating data on ecological processes, biodiversity and pressures in South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
Another project that Lara is exploring involves historical research records captured by John D. Gilchrist, one of South Africa’s first marine scientists in the 1900s. Prof Colin Attwood from the University of Cape Town (UCT) “unearthed” these research records which contained a wealth of information that Gilchrist meticulously recorded including sample coordinates, species names, weights and numbers of many marine species. Prof Attwood has spent considerable time collating and digitising the data with some support from Dr Angus Paterson, Manager of SAEON’s Elwandle Node and his team. It is hopeful that these data can provide some indication of the state of marine communities before industrial activity boomed in South Africa.
Another project Lara has initiated, is a spin-off from her PhD work, which entails collaborating with Prof Astrid Jarre and Dr Lynne Shannon of UCT in developing benthic indicators — easy-to-measure components of the benthic environment such as a species or a group of species that can be measured and used to assist in assessing the state of sandy benthic habitat.
In between all these projects this achiever is also lecturing a course at UCT in Permanova, a statistical analysis technique for testing the simultaneous response of one or more variables to one or more factors, which she describes as a very useful tool in the type of research she conducts.
She is currently wrapping up a number of projects that she was involved with before joining SAEON, including a research project for PetroSA, another collaboration with SANBI and WWF. One of the components of the project looked at the benthic habitat within a petroleum exclusion zone. As these zones are areas where no other offshore activities are allowed, Lara and the team sampled fish, benthic fauna and sediment to investigate for effects of potential impact. The report is currently being finalised with PetroSA. Lara commends PetroSA for being so supportive of their research — providing them with ship time, ROVs, as well as valuable underwater footage. “It has been great to have learnt so much about the petroleum industry through this project,” she says.
Lara says she knew from a very early age that she wanted to study marine science. She did her BSc training at the then University of Port Elizabeth, which gave her the opportunity to focus on marine sciences. She completed her Honours degree at UCT where she made some good contacts that led her straight into her Masters degree — studying the movement patterns of the West Coast rock lobster.
West Coast rock lobster have moved eastwards and Lara investigated large-scale movement behaviour by using high-tech acoustic tags and an underwater hydrophone to monitor their daily movement behaviour in rocky reef areas. “It was the first time acoustic tracking had been used for rock lobster in SA,” Lara says.
After her Masters she was involved in consulting work with a small company based at UCT where she gained valuable experience on a diverse range of topics.
After consulting for about five years it was time for her to move on, so when a good opportunity presented itself for a PhD, she jumped at it. It involved working in the offshore environment, which, she says, is notoriously challenging to work in because of its inaccessibility – one needs to have access to a ship to reach offshore areas, which is expensive and one of the reasons why limited research has been done in South Africa’s offshore environment.
Lara joined SAEON in April, merely a few months after finishing her PhD. “I am very happy with my decision to join SAEON,” she states. “In the two months since I’ve joined SAEON several opportunities have opened for me. I want to do research in the offshore environment that can contribute towards making a difference. Opportunities abound, and with SAEON it is wonderful to have clear direction, goals and guidance on how you need to head towards them.”
SAEON’s Elwandle Node has already involved Lara in their artificial reef monitoring project at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, where she will be taking a management role in the taxonomic identification of the invertebrates.
Lara enjoys this project as it takes her back to the underwater world which she loves. “As a marine scientist I find that the time I spend out in the field re-establishes my bond and connection with the environment,” she says.
She is excited about the collaboration between Egagasini and Elwandle Nodes, especially as they complement each other very well. She sees her contribution to the suite of skills contained within the Nodes as a further enhancement – while Egagasini’s Dr Juliet Hermes concentrates on physical oceanography and Dr Angus Paterson and his team conduct mostly inshore ecological monitoring, she will be focusing on ecological monitoring in the offshore environment.
Lara is looking forward to working with the new ROV and research vessel uKwabelana. She describes the ROV as a fantastic tool which will enable SAEON to start exploring our country’s deeper waters and gain a better understanding of what is really going on down there.
She is also looking forward to assisting with Egagasini’s education outreach initiatives. “I take responsibilities such as education outreach and mentorship very seriously,” she stresses, “it’s someone else’s life and future career that I might be influencing.”
Lara says that she is grateful that her own career path has crossed those of some very strong and highly respected marine scientists. She describes the influence that her mentor, Prof George Branch has had on her life as monumental. She fondly remembers the day she first met him at the then University of Port Elizabeth.
“I was a young and probably quite a cheeky student, and as I walked up to the building, there he was with a cloth over his head, half inside a tank. She wondered what on earth he was doing, and then saw that he was taking a photograph of some anemone he had set up in the tank to make it look like it was actually in the sea. “But that’s cheating!” she exclaimed.
She was quite embarrassed when she later realised that it was the well-known Prof George Branch. He became her supervisor for her Honours and Masters projects and Lara says that most of her major career decisions in life have been discussed with him. “He has been an influential person in my life and has guided me wonderfully. He is the type of person who considers the individual’s character and personality when offering advice,” she explains.
Lara’s PhD supervisor, Prof John Field, has also been a major influence in her studies and career path. She was most honoured to have Prof Field participate on a four-week sampling trip at sea during her PhD studies, where he eagerly helped in picking out specimens, washing out the mud and identifying them, sometimes until the early hours of the morning.
Diving aids underwater research
As Lara’s Honours and Masters projects involved a substantial amount of diving to collect and/or monitor the rock lobsters, she decided in 1998 to do a commercial scientific dive course at UCT. Since then she has become a competent diver and has frequently dived in adverse conditions making sure she collects the data in time.
“Being able to spend time underwater opens a different and fascinating world – I get to see the species and communities in their own environment which helps in deciphering and interpreting the scientific results one gets at the end of the day,” she explains.
Lara’s enthusiasm for her chosen career and her new challenges at SAEON promise to give a welcome boost to our country’s vital research in the largely unexplored and unknown offshore marine environment.