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Expedition aims to study East African coral reef ecosystems

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Coral reefs are some of the most productive and diverse ecosystems on the planet.

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The coral reefs along the East African coastline provide valuable resources for coastal communities, including a rich source of food, the generation of foreign currency through tourism and coastal protection against tropical storms.

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Mozambican coral reefs have suffered outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish (pictured).

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Follow this exciting expedition on http://marinetransect.org .

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The route along the East African coastline.

Click to enlarge

By Rhett Bennett (EAMT Science and Research), Mike Markovina (EAMT Expedition Leader) and Tommy Bornman (SAEON Elwandle Node)

 

Coral reefs are some of the most productive and diverse ecosystems on the planet. They provide a wealth of functions, ecological services and goods to coastal areas, including food security for millions of people in coastal communities.

However, overfishing, destructive fishing practices such as dynamite fishing and poisons, and the adverse effects of climate change have negative impacts on the ecological functioning and balance of coral reef ecosystems, and can have devastating effects on the coral reef itself.

As a result of these activities, an estimated 19% of the world’s coral reefs have already been ‘effectively lost’, and a further 15% is thought to be in a ‘critical’ state.

The coral reefs along the East African coastline provide valuable resources for coastal communities, including a rich source of food, the generation of foreign currency through tourism and coastal protection against tropical storms. A large number of people depend on these resources for their livelihoods.

Widespread damage

Unfortunately, East African coral reefs exhibit widespread damage, and the condition of these reefs has deteriorated in recent decades. Mozambican coral reefs have suffered outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, structural reef damage from recreational SCUBA diving and major overfishing as a result of a large subsistence fishery.

Coral reefs in Tanzania have become particularly degraded, due to overexploitation of resources and destructive fishing practices, such as dynamite fishing, drag nets and cyanide poisoning. Coral reefs in Kenya are threatened by further sea temperature rises and destructive fishing practices, and local fishers in this area have little respect for marine protected areas (MPAs).

However, many of these coral reefs are represented by high biodiversity, and exhibit relatively high resilience to coral bleaching; as such, this region can be identified as an important region for coral reef conservation.

Enter the East African Marine Transect Expedition

The East African Marine Transect (EAMT) Expedition is a four-month expedition (November 2012 to March 2013) along the east coast of Africa, from South Africa to Kenya. The expedition aims to improve our understanding of the ecology of the East African coral reef ecosystems by employing a quantitative, diver-operated stereo video survey technique to gather information on the status of the fish and coral communities within the region.

The East African Marine Transect Expedition will provide valuable environmental baseline data from one of the least studied ocean regions in the world. This unique dataset will form the basis against which global and climate change could be measured in the future.

The expedition will provide much-needed baseline data on the abundance, diversity and size structures of the coral reef fishes, and the broad geographical range of the sampling will allow assessment of the latitudinal changes in ichthyofaunal composition across the region. These data will also be compared to historical data to identify changes in abundance, diversity and distribution, identify areas that have been most severely affected by overfishing and to assess the effectiveness of current and historical management regimes. The surveys will cover large expanses of reef, as well as reefs from a range of fishing intensities and levels of resource protection.

The EAMT Team has engaged with a number of relevant stakeholders in the region, such as the Agulhas and Somali Current Large Marine Ecosystems Project (ASCLME), Coral Reef Degradation in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO), the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA), Tanzanian Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI), the Kenyan Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI), the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), and EcoAfrica, to ensure that the expedition is most effective.

Advancement of marine ecological knowledge

The data will be made available to research and management institutions for comparative research or for further analyses that may lead to improved management or conservation, and to academic institutions in the study region for the advancement of marine ecological knowledge. The results will be interpreted in terms of the management requirements in each area, from which informed decisions can be made, and strategic plans formulated for improved management.

It is also hoped that the results will highlight and provide empirical evidence that MPAs are providing effective protection for coral reef fishes, and the potential for seeding of adjacent unprotected areas, thereby improving local fishers’ attitudes towards, and support for, MPAs.

Links to SAEON

The East African Marine Transect Expedition will provide valuable environmental baseline data from one of the least studied ocean regions in the world. This unique dataset will form the basis against which global and climate change could be measured in the future. The EAMT Expedition will collect, process and analyse the data, not only for scientific research, but also to inform decision making for a knowledgeable society and improved quality of life.

All the data and metadata from the expedition will be archived and disseminated through SAEON’s shared data platform. By making the processed data and metadata freely available, the EAMT Expedition and SAEON will assist policy-makers to access and review relevant scientific evidence to help them formulate appropriate environmental policies.

SAEON’s Elwandle Node will also assist the expedition by providing logistical support to sample in Sodwana Bay, South Africa.

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