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A NEW marine-focused research chair – jointly held by South Africa and the United Kingdom – is developing an immense research programme linked with food security, stretching between Cape Town and the Arabian Sea.

RESEARCH LEADER … Prof Mike Roberts, the incumbent of a bilateral research chair in Ocean Science and Food Security between South Africa and the United Kingdom, is pioneering food security research in the western Indian Ocean.

It is called the Western Indian Oceans Upwelling Research Initiative (WIOURI).

“Upwelling is the process that takes nutrients from the bottom of the ocean and brings them to the surface,” said oceanographer Prof Mike Roberts, who holds the Research Chair in Ocean Science and Food Security, which is jointly hosted by NMMU, the University of Southampton (UoS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), the United Kingdom's leading marine science research and technology institution.

Upwelling provides food for the bottom end of the food chain – such as phytoplankton and zooplankton – which ultimately provides food for fish and top predators.

“How this links with food security is that, in parallel with global climate change, the ocean’s upwelling system is changing, which will affect all levels of the food chain.

“The Western Indian Ocean is unique in that there are around two billion people living around the coastal regions and on islands who depend on artisanal fishing [small trade rather than commercial fishing] for their livelihoods.”

Changes in the ocean will directly impact on their livelihood.

Prof Roberts said the Eastern Indian Oceans Upwelling Research Initiative (EIOURI), supported by Australia, India and China, was well-developed, but little research had yet been conducted through WIOURI.

The Research Chair was one of three UK-SA bilateral chairs, launched in May 2016.

A large part of the Chair’s work will involve the collection of data using ships, automated subsea gliders, moorings, satellites and ocean models.

Prof Roberts said the link with UoS and NOC created an “innovation bridge” between Southampton’s world-class facilities and South Africa, which was ideally positioned to conduct WIOURI research.

A number of postgraduate NMMU students have already spent time at UoS and NOC to “acquire specialist technical skills not available in South Africa”.

“By dropping these students into a world class facility, we are immediately creating a centre of excellence at NMMU.”

NMMU’s first research cruise, to collect data off Madagascar, took place in November.

Prof Roberts spent 26 years working as a scientist and later specialist scientist in the South African Government, including the Sea Fisheries Research Institute (SFRI), Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) and the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Oceans and Coasts division – a career path that built vast experience in ocean physics, ecosystem functioning, fisheries and the impacts of climate change.

The Chair in Ocean Science and Food Security forms part of the South African Research Chair Initiative (Sarchi), established by the Department of Science and Technology in partnership with the National Research Foundation. It is jointly funded by the NRF and the UK’s Newton Fund, which is administered by the British Council.

The Chair currently has seven postgraduate students and post-doctoral fellows to assist in undertaking the research required in WIOURI but this will increase annually as the research programme builds momentum.

NMMU has marine research expertise going back more than 30 years through its Institute for Coastal and Marine Research. The University also hosts the South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI), and is involved in each of the various Working Groups defined by Operation Phakisa, to develop South Africa’s blue economy.

With its focus ultimately on marine food security and aquaculture, the Chair will also play a key role in Operation Phakisa.

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057