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Change the world


This article apppeared in the Herald of 20 September 2017 written by Guy Rogers.

PORT Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela University (NMU) is set to launch an initiative as one of the cornerstones of a R4-billion international research programme aimed at meeting the challenges of the developing world.

The four-year R144-million NMU project will focus on ocean sciences and the collapse of two key fisheries in South African and East African waters that support more than 60 million people.

Based in the UK, the £225-million (R4.05-billion) Global Challenges Research Fund initiative has been called one of the most ambitious international research programmes ever created.

The 36 projects it will fund will tackle issues ranging from climate change and biodiversity to development trade-offs, ensuring the sustainability of big dams, disease control, the link between livestock and human health, water conservation, sustainable cities and solar power.

NMU’s Solstice (Sustainable Oceans, Livelihoods and food Security Through Increased Capacity in Ecosystem research) project is spearheaded by oceanographer Professor Mike Roberts.

Based at the university’s new Ocean Sciences Campus, it will boast a state-of-the art diving chamber and fleets of underwater gliders and mini-submarines.

An innovation bridge will secure the transfer of data from a giant mainframe computer in the UK that calibrates the earth’s oceans.

But the evil that the Solstice team confronts is infinitely more powerful and complex than anything conceived of on celluloid to challenge British super-spy James Bond.

“It’s about millions of people who rely on an oceanic food supply line, which has crashed,” Roberts said.

“We want to find out what led to this and plot a way forward.”

The project flowed from the work done by Roberts, while he was employed by the Environment Department’s oceans and coasts directorate, on an early multinational Indian Ocean study and his leadership on the western Indian Ocean project that followed.

The news was out, meanwhile, that a major new programme was being planned and, backed by his appointment as one of only three bilateral South Africa-UK research chairs, he designed and proposed Solstice – and it was approved.

The team will include an estuarine group led by NMU’s Professor Renzo Perrissinoto and a coastal group led by Dr Tommy Bornman, of the South African Environmental Observation Network.

It will also include scientists from several East African countries, and partnerships have been established with research institutions in Kenya and Tanzania.

A deal has been reached with France for research ships.

In the East African case study, 60 million people relied on a mixed species fishery – from residents of 18 coastal villages to communities who derived income from drying and trading the fish, Roberts said.

In South Africa, the chokka industry, with its epicentre off St Francis, employed 3 000 fishermen and supported a total of about 30 000.

“In East Africa, research and government controls are limited, and there’s serious over-fishing as well as practices like dynamite fishing.

“Their fisheries have crashed and a disaster is looming,” he said.

“In South Africa . . . science is strong and controls are good but the chokka fishery collapsed in 2014, affecting tens of thousands of people.

“It has bounced back now – but why did the collapse occur and how do we prevent it recurring?”

NMU vice-chancellor Professor Derrick Swartz said he was extremely excited about the Solstice project.

“We can no longer take the health of the ocean for granted and good science must inform policy aimed at the sustainable use of its resources."

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