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Meet the new Manager of SAEON’s Elwandle Node

Dr Tommy Bornman, recently appointed Manager of SAEON's Elwandle Node.
Sampling in the southern ocean.
Tommy during a recent dive at Sodwana.
With the NRF’s new remotely operated underwater vehicle being able to plumb depths of up to 300 metres, researchers are able to study species such as the coelacanth (pictured) at close range.
For his Masters degree Tommy did a comparative study of the suitability of three Gracilaria gracilis selections as fodder on a commercial abalone farm. This was one of the first studies to look at growing seaweed on land for abalone (Picture: Mitzi du Plessis)

Almost ten years ago a young student at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, Tommy Bornman, made sure he attended a roadshow aimed at gauging the need for a South African organisation that focused on long-term monitoring and research.

The roadshow, organised by the former Foundation for Research Development (now the NRF) and the International Long Term Ecological Research (ILTER) Network involved all South African universities and science institutions to obtain solid stakeholder feedback on the proposed initiative.

“The question met with a resounding ‘yes’ at NMMU as well as at the other institutions,” says Tommy, who joined SAEON at the beginning of this month. “Researchers all over were frustrated with the situation at the time. We worked really hard on our projects for three to four years at the most and that was it – the funding, and hence the research came to an abrupt end after that, regardless of the importance of the data sets. So we were all eager to support the concept of long-term monitoring.”

Tommy remembers that they were all very pleased when SAEON was subsequently established, but at the time it never even entered his mind that he would one day be working for SAEON.

In fact, the young learner initially considered geology as a career. Not only did he have a bursary from a leading mining company, he also enjoyed the physical sciences. But he changed his mind. Instead, having grown up on the Eastern Cape coast and developing a keen interest in all things marine, he opted to study oceanography at the former University of Port Elizabeth, which later became NMMU. Here he met fellow student Wayne Goschen, who now works for SAEON’s Egagasini Node.

"Rising sea levels will have a serious impact on South Africa and the rest of the world, with the biggest impacts on the coastal zone, which is home to large sections of the population.”

Finding his research niche

Again fate intervened. After his first year oceanography was discontinued at NMMU. Tommy had two options – he could either continue his studies in oceanography at the University of Cape Town (UCT) or stay on at NMMU and switch to biology. He decided on the latter, focusing on marine biology and botany.

He soon realised that he had found his niche. He went on to do a BSc Hons in Botany, studying the composition of marine phytoplankton in the Angola-Benguela front and doing a preliminary study on the rope culture of Gracilaria gracilis in a solar salt work pond. The latter represented groundbreaking research in South Africa. Rope culture involves putting small branches of seaweed in a growth medium and harvesting the seaweed by lifting the rope out of the water. Although the project didn’t take off in South Africa on account of too many spores of other seaweed in our water, Tommy received the Institute for Coastal Research Stokes Award for the most deserving marine science student in BSc Honours in 1997. He also graduated cum laude.

For his Masters he did a comparative study of the production and suitability of three Gracilaria gracilis selections as fodder on a commercial abalone farm. This was one of the first studies to look at growing seaweed on land for abalone. The seaweed proved to be an effective fodder for the abalone, causing them to bulk up quickly. It did, however, cause a green colour in the abalone, and specimens up for sale had to be fed brown and red seaweed to give them their traditional colour. His work brought him another award – the best paper presentation at the 16th Congress of the Phycological Society of Swakopmund, which was held in Namibia in 1999.

Tommy decided to do his PhD on the estuarine ecology of the West Coast, focusing on the freshwater requirements of supratidal and floodplain salt marsh. His innovative work scooped three awards – Best paper presentation by a young scientist at the Arid Zone Ecology Forum in 2000; Institute for Environmental and Coastal Management Prestige Travel Award to attend an overseas conference in 2001; and the Estuarine Research Federation Student Travel Award to attend the 16th Biennial Conference of the Estuarine Research Federation in Florida in 2001.

Asked about his achievements, Tommy says they are all due to his passion for his subject. He admits that he only chose projects in research areas that really sparked his interest, which made it easier to spend extra time on them. “It is important to be passionate about your work, especially in science, where you need to be self-driven to a large extent,” he explains.

Tommy states in no uncertain terms that he is a specialist in the ecology of estuarine and coastal marine environments, “by education, inclination and experience”. His interest in botany, for instance covers both marine and terrestrial plants, although they represent different kingdoms. This is why it followed naturally for him to do a PhD in estuarine plants, which differ slightly from marine protists and can be described as a “bit of a cross-over” between marine and terrestrial plants.

Searching for the elusive coelacanth

In 1994 he started working at NMMU’s Botany Department, first as a Research Assistant and Demonstrator, then as an Environmental Scientist and finally as a Research Associate.

In addition, this dynamic young researcher served as Coordinator of the second phase of the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) from 2007 onwards. He was responsible for the smooth running of the programme, which included cruises and boat-based research as well as coastal research, education and data management.

Tommy says he was thrilled when ACEP acquired a new remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) for the project , which enables them to dive deeper (300 metres) and for longer periods compared to SCUBA.

The second phase of the programme was done in collaboration with the Agulhas and Somali Current Large Marine Ecosystem (ASCLME) Project, in which South Africa is a big partner. As Regional Coordinator he was responsible for organising the research cruises of the Regional Cruise Coordination Working Group, which consists of representatives from South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius. His duties included the coordination, planning and execution of all research cruises for ASCLME, identification of suitable scientists, preparation of cruise reports, databases and all cruise meetings.

Testing the waters at SAEON’s Elwandle Node

Although Tommy regards himself more as a “coastal person” than an “offshore person”, he thoroughly enjoyed working on the ACEP and ASCLME programmes. However, he made sure that he stayed involved in the coastal environment through his students’ work in estuaries.

On his decision to join SAEON’s Elwandle Node for the coastal zone, Tommy says that it probably constitutes a “natural migration” for him, particularly as there is still a massive gap in the area of coastal research. “I have been lucky in that I have worked along the entire South African and African coastline, so I know the areas and I managed to build relations with key international connections. This, I think, could be invaluable to SAEON in the long term - SAEON needs to be out there in the international arena,” he smiles.

He is quick to point out that he has big shoes to fill. “Angus did a sterling job in setting up the node, getting all the role players together and establishing a sentinel site in Algoa Bay,” he says, “and I am very lucky that he has left me with a fully functional node.” Another advantage is that he has worked with Elwandle’s staff before, which he describes as ‘very competent’.

The challenge for him would be to expand the node. During its establishment phase Elwandle was largely Eastern Cape orientated. What is needed now is to roll this successful concept out to the rest of South Africa. Tommy would like to get more buy-in from the scientific community in KwaZulu-Natal, for instance - people he got to know during his stint at ACEP and ASCLME, which resulted in multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research programmes.

Tommy stresses that it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain funding, so scientists need to collaborate. It is also evident that scientists are becoming increasingly dependent on the NRF’s national research facilities for their research. “We provide the platforms,” Tommy explains, “so instead of every university having to buy a boat, or a CTD or a ROV that costs millions, we share those facilities with them.”

Nowadays there is also a bigger drive towards ecosystem-level studies. As an ecologist Tommy has always been involved in ecosystem work, studying entire ecosystems. For this purpose, one needs to get researchers to work together as a team to come up with an ecosystem result. In the past, people studied one species without considering any environmental impacts on the species. Today we know that the environment affects all species so it has become vital to look at the ecosystem, the bigger picture, which makes for far more interesting research.

“Whatever Elwandle does in terms of research, it will always involve other people,“ Tommy explains, “which is good as it cements relations.” As their in situ instruments are mostly under water, Elwandle requires a large complement of divers to carry out their research. Although capacity have been built in house, they also need to make use of external divers, mostly from SAIAB, NMMU and Rhodes University. For their work in and around Cape Town they use divers from the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Oceans and Coasts and in KwaZulu-Natal they use local divers from outfits such as the Oceanographic Research Institute.

Sharing his views on climate change

Climate change has been an element in several of Tommy’s research projects. He is adamant that he has yet to see any dramatic effects of climate change on the coastal area. “As a scientist I would rather err on the side of caution and say that any impacts are not immediately evident,” he argues, adding that it is very difficult to separate natural cycles from human induced impacts. The challenge is to try and distinguish what impact we as human beings are having on the planet.

Yet sea levels are rising, whether from natural or human induced causes. Tommy says that it is vital to have systems in place to monitor this change and, if necessary, to come up with policy applications for society. “I think we as scientists have an obligation to study this phenomenon and inform the government what can be done to mitigate this impact. Rising sea levels will have a serious impact on South Africa and the rest of the world, with the biggest impacts on the coastal zone, which is home to large sections of the population.”

Even though the rate at which sea levels are rising is so slow that the environment would have been be able to adapt, there’s no room for the environment to migrate into as the coastal areas are so densely populated. “As sea levels rise the estuaries should basically accrete and rise with the sea levels, but to do that they have to move laterally, turning terrestrial areas into estuarine areas. The problem is we’ve built up the entire terrestrial environment so there’s nowhere for these marine estuarine environments to move into, and that’s the big concern,” Tommy explains.

In tropical waters such as those of the Seychelles, rising sea temperatures are causing coral bleaching. A few incidences of coral bleaching have also been observed at Sodwana along South Africa’s East Coast. The biggest immediate impact of climate change would be an increase in once-off events such as storm surges. Yet even these short-term impacts can have a big influence on the country.

The problem is that we don’t have reliable long-term data, Tommy argues. Our records only stretch back 150 years at the most, so it is very difficult to distinguish between what is natural and what is human induced.

But at Elwandle we will be giving it our best shot, he says with a smile.

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