By 2050 there will be nine billion people on Earth, with populations growing fastest in the low-lying coastal regions. Many of these communities rely on the oceans for food security, but the oceans are warming and food security risks are rapidly rising.  

What sustains marine food security, what are the underpinning ecosystems and how do they function in this era of climate change and changing global oceans?

How does this impact marine upwelling systems in the Western Indian Ocean, which extends all the way up the eastern coast of Africa, including Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, and the island states of Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius and Réunion?

These questions are the focus of marine specialist scientist Professor Mike Roberts’ SARChI Research Chair in Ocean Science and Marine Food Security. The Chair is jointly hosted by Nelson Mandela University, the University of Southampton (UoS) and the Southampton-based National Oceanography Centre (NOC) – the United Kingdom’s leading marine science research and technology institutions.

Upwelling, Prof Roberts explains, is the upward movement of deep, cold, nutrient-rich water to the ocean surface, encouraging the growth of phytoplankton (microplants which form the base of the marine food web), which ultimately provides energy all the way up the food web to reach the top marine predators. Upwelling and the ocean physics causing it, directly underpins marine food security.

As the planet’s climate is changing, so is the ocean’s upwelling system, strongly affecting all levels of the food chain in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) — a region Prof Roberts is focusing on. Here, over 60 million people are directly dependent on the ocean for their food and livelihoods. In addition to climate change, the region is also experiencing the rapid deterioration of the marine environment caused by overfishing, destructive forms of fishing such as with the use of dynamite, and high levels of pollution.

“To find answers as to how to address this requires an intensive transdisciplinary research approach from physics to fish to forecasts. This encompasses research in physical oceanography, biogeochemistry, plankton, trophic ecology, fisheries and food resources, quantified by end-to-end ecosystem and socio-economic modelling,” says Prof Roberts who spent 26 years working as a specialist marine scientist for the South African government’s Sea Fisheries Research Institute (SFRI), Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) and Department of Environmental Affairs’ Oceans and Coasts Division.

The Chair’s research programme, called the Western Indian Ocean Upwelling Research Initiative (WIOURI) embraces transdisciplinary research and uses modeling to determine how and by how much climate change and a changing ocean is going to impact food resources in the WIO.

The WIO’s counterpart, the Eastern Indian Ocean Upwelling Research Initiative (EIOURI), supported by Australia, India, Japan and China, is well-developed, but research in WIOURI is only really getting going now, with the first seven postgraduate candidates and postdoctoral fellows participating in the research required by the WIOURI. Student numbers will increase annually as the research programme builds momentum.

“The link with the University of Southampton (UoS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) creates an invaluable new innovation bridge between Southampton and Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, which is ideally positioned to conduct WIOURI research.

“The innovation bridge will have a continuous flow of people and research between the northern hemisphere and Africa, with regional projects extending from South Africa all the way up Africa’s eastern coastline.

A large part of the Chair’s work will involve the collection of data using ships, automated subsea gliders, moorings, satellites and ocean models. The aim is to exponentially grow research capacity and, in addition to the research exchange, the UoS and NOC are generously loaning us costly research technology.”

A number of postgraduate students from Mandela University have already spent time at the UoS and NOC to acquire specialist technical skills not yet available in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela University’s first research cruise, to collect data off Madagascar, took place in November 2016.

“By offering our students the additional exposure to researchers and facilities at the UoS and NOC, we are creating a WIOURI Centre of Excellence in Ocean Sciences and a PhD production pipeline at Nelson Mandela University,” says Prof Roberts.

“Few African universities outside of South Africa have anywhere near sufficient numbers of ocean scientists with PhDs; essential for buildng the research capacity required to innovate Africa’s solutions to food security and other ocean challenges.

“What further highlights this is that the countries with the top-ranked 1000 universities in the world based on research output and a wealth of PhDs are the countries with the greatest national wealth; with the exception of Australia, all in the northern hemisphere. Apart from a handful of South African universities, no other African universities are ranked in the top 1000, with a corresponding lack of PhDs, research resources and wealth.”

The comparative example he provides is the new Indian Ocean Marine Research Institute (IOMRI) in Perth, Australia, which has 132 staff members, 82 with PhDs and a new research ship. By comparison one of Africa’s chief research institutes, the Institute for Marine Science (IMS) in Zanzibar, established in 1978, uses a ski boat as a research vessel and has 20 staff members and 15 PhDs. The lack of good research infrastructure hugely impacts our capabilities to do good research that matters.

Time is not on our side. Food security and climate change problems are worsening and the WIO is the fastest warming of the world’s oceans. Already early measurements show planktonic food in the WIO is declining and coastal and pelagic (offshore) zones are becoming a lot less productive. We have a humanitarian disaster busy unfolding and poor coastal communities have little capacity to adapt for change,” says Prof Roberts who set up a regional hub in Kenya and Tanzania in February 2016 together with the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) and the Institute of Marine Sciences in Zanzibar, which is part of the University of Dar es Salaam.

Through the Chair, he has further secured R160 million from the United Kingdom government as a start-up for two large case studies in South Africa and East Africa. The South African case study will investigate the squid fishery collapse in 2013/2014 off the south coast. The East African case study will build knowledge about the Western Indian Ocean, where almost nothing is known about these tropical, regional marine ecosystems.

“We need to understand, measure model and predict our marine ecosystems and the impact on their human dependents. We need scientists to come up with a research plan to deal with the situation. Hopefully from this we can come up with mitigation measures and a plan for adaptation.”