South Africa is exceptionally endowed with a rich marine environment and a huge diversity of ecosystems, hence it comes as no surprise that yesterday South Africa celebrated the launch of the first-ever book of its kind in the country, the Field Guide to the Offshore Marine Invertebrates of South Africa, at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town.
The book, consisting of impressive collaborative work between the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), and many other institutes, is a photograph-based field identification guide that enables researchers, fishery observers and fishers to readily recognise and identify commonly occurring invertebrate epifauna from South Africa's offshore region. It enables them to identify up to 409 offshore invertebrate species or classify unknown species into one of 12 phyla. Due to the nature of research, trawl sampling, species depicted in this guide are currently spatially limited to the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries’ (DAFF) demersal survey area which spans the continental shelf between 30 m and 1000 m from the Orange River mouth to Port Alfred. DAFF were instrumental in providing berths onboard their research vessel surveys thereby enabling this research to take place.
Over the past seven years, a dedicated team of researchers and a large team of co-authors, along with collaborators from South Africa and abroad, implemented as well as maintained a long-term, offshore invertebrate monitoring programme. Led by Dr Lara Atkinson and Dr Kerry Sink, the team has been able to collate the invertebrate information collected during these DAFF demersal research surveys to produce this first-ever ‘Field Guide to the Offshore Marine Invertebrates of South Africa’.
The information gathered informs research towards quantifying and assessing ecosystem impacts, leading to the implementation of sustainable management practices in the demersal trawl sector. The research supports international and local interests which include fisheries eco-certification through the Marine Stewardship Council hake trawl certification; participation in a global trawl impact assessment, and national ecosystem classification.
The rich photographic display of deep-sea species is also being used for educational outreach and aims to generate broader public engagement and awareness of our ocean environment. This field guide, complemented by the extensive training of students, interns and emerging researchers, is an important contributor in addressing the gap in offshore invertebrate knowledge in South Africa. The information gathered supports the long-term monitoring and data availability of marine invertebrates and advances taxonomy and biogeographic research. Moreover, the information contributes to the description, mapping, assessment and thus the improved management of marine ecosystems.
Because of its geographical position at the southern tip of Africa, South Africa not only serves as a gateway to the Southern Ocean benefiting from its three surrounding ocean ecosystems, but its advantaged position is also a major factor driving the high levels of marine biodiversity and endemism. Internationally, South Africa is ranked as having the third highest number of marine species per unit area within its exclusive economic zone, creating an appealing research arena, and it has an internationally recognised, proud legacy of excellence in marine science.
SAEON’s Dr Lara Atkinson commented that: “South Africa’s Blue Economy vision for a stronger and sustainable ocean economy depends on the strength of its scientific foundation. Correct identification of marine taxa is a fundamental requirement for long-term monitoring. Such monitoring enables scientists to detect changes in marine biota. In turn, understanding these changes in marine biota contributes to the effective science-based management of our marine ecosystems.”
“Many new distribution records are being detected and these are making marine taxonomy and bio-discovery research in South Africa very appealing to the international sector. Although these discoveries are a testament to the limited state of knowledge prior to implementation of this monitoring programme, they indicate the potential for further discoveries in South Africa’s rich ocean environment,” she concluded.