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IORAG SA hosts first Western Indian Ocean discussion group at 10th WIOMSA Symposium

By Nicole du Plessis, Mapula Makwela, Fehmi Dilmahamod and Juliet Hermes, SAEON Egagasini Node
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Nicole du Plessis engages with a delegate during the poster session

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In her presentation SAEON student Mapula Makwela highlighted the potential physical drivers of species assemblages along the deep reefs of KwaZulu-Natal

The 10th WIOMSA (Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association) Science Symposium was held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania from 30 October to 2 November.

This provided the perfect opportunity to present the work being done by the South African Chapter of the Indian Ocean Rim Association Academic Group (IORA AG) and begin to facilitate an Africa focus.

SAEON’s Nicole du Plessis, who attended the full week, presented a poster titled ‘The role of Academia as South Africa takes over as Chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA)’. This elicited a good deal of interest from representatives from Mauritius, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania and Mozambique. The main area of interest was the work being done by IORA AG within the Blue Economy. Interest was also shown in how marine scientists could be more involved within IORA and facilitate better links with WIOMSA.

Students affiliated with SAEON’s Egagasini Node were also in attendance. Mapula Makwela provided her take on the symposium: “Karibu! The most commonly used word, such that I had no choice but to learn its meaning within the first few hours of my arrival in Tanzania. Indeed, this word is not just said, but the town has proved to be most welcoming with friendly people all around.”

Mapula delivered an oral presentation titled ‘An investigation of biodiversity surrogate for classification and mapping of outer shelf ecosystems in KwaZulu-Natal’; which is based on her MSc research project. In her presentation she highlighted how marine epifauna data (benthic invertebrates) can be used to test and refine existing habitat classifications of the East Coast of South Africa, and highlighted the potential physical drivers of species assemblages along the KwaZulu-Natal deep reefs.

She furthermore explained the methods used and how her results will be incorporated into one of South Africa’s proposed marine protected areas. She was overwhelmed by the response she received. The audience showed a keen interest in her work and asked several questions following the presentation.

Mapula rates this experience as one of her career highlights, particularly since many scientists applied to present their work orally, but did not get offered a chance. Mapula was motivated by the talk given by Dr Jacqueline Uku, the president of WIOMSA, who shared wise words of encouragement with young scientists, and women in particular.

SAEON student Fehmi Dilmahamod noted that the international conference provided a good platform for the scientists of the Western Indian Oceans to showcase their work: “It was a great opportunity for me, coming from one of the Western Indian Ocean countries, to present my PhD work to the whole WIOMSA community. It illustrated the importance of moving towards an oceanic modelling approach to gain a better grasp of the physical mechanisms at play in an under-sampled region of the ocean.

”My work focused on how, by using this technique, we are able to understand the drivers of an open-ocean chlorophyll bloom, one which could be very important to the regulation of carbon storage. It was also fascinating to get an overview of other projects, mostly related to biological oceanography, which is very present in the surrounding seas. This conference allowed me to interact and network with experts in the region and this is fundamental for my current study and for future collaboration among Western Indian Ocean institutions.”

Plenary sessions

The final day consisted of three plenary sessions. The first highlighted the work being done by National Geographic, including the opportunity of funding early-career scientists to carry out research under several themes. 

In the next session, Dr Matthew Richmond gave an interesting talk titled ‘To drill or not to drill: examining issues associated with the development of the oil and gas industry in the WIO”. His talk highlighted the process leading up to oil and gas exploration and the time it takes, as well as the standards and best practices that are in place. He explained the difference between drilling for oil versus gas. Gas has much less potential harmful impacts, but is not as profitable. In terms of the potential harmful impacts of oil spills, mangroves, local fisheries and seaweed farming are very susceptible, whereas coral reefs and deeper species not so much as oil floats over the surface and then drifts away.

In the third plenary session, Dr Bryceson delivered his keynote address on the development of marine science in Western Indian Ocean and the establishment of WIOMSA.

Special sessions

Following the plenary sessions, the group broke up into the special sessions. Dr Juliet Hermes, manager of SAEON’s Egagasini Node, attended the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIOE2) session, which highlighted that there is still plenty of scope for exciting research within the context of IIOE2 within the region.

Nicole attended the sessions on the IUCN Blue Solutions programme, which is aimed at the sharing and development of best practice guidelines for marine protected areas and the SeaSketch programme, which has developed an easy-to-use web-based tool that can be used for marine spatial planning by a variety of stakeholders.

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Opening ceremony of the WIOMSA Scientific Symposium 

Finally, Nicole and Juliet hosted a special session on the IORA-AG with presenters from South Africa, Mozambique and the Seychelles. Important topics and possible areas of collaboration that arose during the in-depth discussions included the Blue Economy, maritime safety and security, offshore mineral exploration, university exchanges and climate change impacts.

A large part of the discussion focused on improving coordination with WIOMSA and potentially submitting WIOMSA to be an ‘observer group’ within IORA. It was strongly advised that Juliet and Nicole discuss this further with Dr Julius Francis (WIOMSA Executive Secretary) and Dr Jaqueline Uku (WIOMSA President). At the evening’s cocktail function, they discussed the way forward, and the WIOMSA team seemed very keen to carry on discussions and pursue collaborations.

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