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New marine science and species mapping project supports wise decision making


Dr Kerry Sink from SANBI is the principal investigator of the project (Picture: Dr Lara Atkinson)


SAEON's Dr Lara Atkinson leads the SeaKeys monitoring working group


The SeaKeys species mapping initiatives include a Sea Slug Atlas. Pictured here is the gasflame nudibranch, Bonisa nakaza, a very colourful species of nudibranch, or sea slug. (Picture: Geoff Spiby)


SeaKeys scientists are calling on scuba divers, fishers, snorkelers, ROV pilots, beach-goers, marine protected area visitors and staff to assist in making a real difference to the health of our oceans

By Kerry Sink, Marine Programme Manager, SANBI & Lara Atkinson, Offshore Marine Scientist, SAEON Egagasini Node


A brand new marine project was launched in Cape Town in March this year, bringing together marine biologists, students, citizen scientists and decision makers to unlock marine biodiversity knowledge and opportunities in South Africa.

The SeaKeys project aims to collect and distribute genetic, species and ecosystem information to support wise decision making in the marine environment. This information is vital as expanding marine activities such as seabed mining, oil and gas activities and alternative energy initiatives compete for space with established fisheries and recreational use of the country's seas. Core to the project are several new marine citizen science projects that invite contributions from the public.

Marine biodiversity knowledge lags behind that of other environments. The ocean is less accessible than the land, and costs and logistical challenges increase with depth. SeaKeys is the first large collaborative project funded through the Foundational Biodiversity Information Programme - a joint initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). The SeaKeys team includes more than 30 people from 20 institutes and departments and aims to involve civil society in collecting information on marine biodiversity.

New tools for ocean decision making

Over the next three years the project will deliver national species lists, new species distribution records, DNA barcodes, new species descriptions, identification guides and maps, and new tools for ocean decision making.

The citizen science component involves new atlasing projects as well as monitoring of jellyfish and potential marine invasive species that may pose risks to ocean ecosystems. The species mapping initiatives include a National Fish Atlas, a Sea Slug Atlas, an Atlas for corals, sea fans and anemones and an Atlas for mapping starfish, urchins, sea urchins and their kin.

Offshore invertebrate species identifications

SAEON are involved in the SeaKeys project through the participation of Dr Lara Atkinson from the Egagasini Node who is leading the Monitoring working group set up through SeaKeys. Lara is a participant in several other working groups within the project and will also be contributing many offshore invertebrate species identifications to be included in the SeaKeys inventory lists.

The project uses three web-based platforms to collect marine species observations. SA Jellywatch calls for public participation in tracking jellyfish distributions and abundance. i-Spot and EchinoMAP allow for uploading of photographs of marine species along with locality information (using Google Earth maps or GPS co-ordinates) to create detailed distributions of South African marine species.

The data will be used in habitat mapping, monitoring and the assessment of species and ecosystem threat status and protection levels. These applied research outputs will support ocean zoning, decision making in the fisheries and mining sectors, sustainable development, climate change adaptation and the establishment of marine protected areas.

Citizen scientists

South African citizen scientists have made many contributions to marine science in South Africa and beyond. Public contributions to SeaKeys will make a real difference to the health of our oceans.

"We are asking scuba divers, fishers, snorkelers, ROV pilots, beach-goers, Marine Protected Area visitors and staff for their help," said Principal Investigator Dr Kerry Sink from SANBI.

The SeaKeys project also aims to explore benefits from marine biodiversity. Novel approaches to market non-consumptive uses of South Africa’s marine biodiversity will be piloted. Watch out for the "Dive South Africa" project and its associated new scuba diving training courses, bio-dives to document marine species, sea slug shootouts and much more.


The SeaKeys launch was hosted in the Whale Well of the Iziko South Africa Museum on 18 March 2014. Dr Wayne Florence, Curator of the Marine Invertebrate Collection and a Co-Investigator on the project, led the development of new displays to showcase SeaKeys.

This project is set to unlock historical records and fast track the identification of thousands of marine invertebrate specimens housed at the museum which remain to be studied.

For further information about the SeaKeys project, contact Dr Kerry Sink, Marine Programme Manager, SANBI.

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