Expedition to explore the marine biodiversity and fish abundance in the deeper reef ecosystems of the Comoros.

September 2018 will see the start of an exciting project funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) into the Comoros Archipelago. The Comoros coral reefs are an unrivaled marine paradise, with one of the highest concentrations of coral reef species within the western Indian Ocean. Comoros offers reefs which parade hundreds of fish species, shells, and corals.
The research team aims to study the marine biodiversity and fish abundance in the deeper (benthic) ecosystems in the Comoros. Research will be led by chief scientist Melita Samoilys, Director of Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO), a well-known Kenyan NGO, specialising in generating knowledge to find solutions that benefit marine ecosystems and people.

The deeper habitats that this project will focus on are unexplored and unknown and need protection. “We will be exploring these unknown areas to understand where the sensitive areas are and where the protection should be. We look forward to working with the University of Comoros and the Fisheries Directorate scientists and their students in the Comoros Archipelago, looking at their deeper habitats, deeper than 40 metres. This study will be important for sustaining inshore fisheries, as well as climate refuges,” said Dr Jean Harris, Executive Director of WILDOCEANS.

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation. CEPF through WILDOCEANS, will work to empower the Comoros Archipelago science fraternity to understand the nature and distribution of benthic ecosystems and the coral reefs, and how to protect them. “Biodiversity is an essential part of a planet that supports more than 7 billion people,” said Olivier Langrand, Executive Director of CEPF. “The efforts of the WILDOCEANS project partnership to better understand and ultimately protect biodiverse ecosystems such as the coral reefs of the Comoros are of the utmost importance. The vital services such ecosystems provide, for example as a refuge for fish species, make this type of research an investment in a healthier future for oceans, for the people of Comoros, and for everyone. We also value the fact that this project is implemented by experts from the region in a spirit of cooperation.” To date, CEPF has contributed substantially to the protection of areas around the world.

Local scientists and students, primarily from the University of Comoros, will contribute to gaining insights into conducting fish community surveys around the island on board the WILDOCEANS’ oceanic research vessel, the RV Angra Pequena. The project seeks to achieve impact in four areas, namely, biodiversity knowledge improvement, enhancement of civil society capacity, improved human well-being and creation of enabling conditions for conservation. The research expedition will work to empower the Comoros science fraternity to achieve these four areas. When asked about the exciting opportunity that awaits these students at the University of Comoros, Nirina Rasoanandrasana, a lecturer at the university responded saying, “This is a great opportunity for us to meet scientists in the marine environment, and to engage in an exchange of research and communication. Comoros relies on subsistence fishing, which is contributing to the country’s developing economy. This project will adequately equip us to teach our communities about protecting our precious ecosystems and the parts of it that are unknown, as well as fishing sustainably in a way that will not harm the very ecosystems we aim to protect”. Nirina, who is also a biologist and oceanographer, will be part of the science fraternity joining this expedition.

This project is a collaboration with the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB)’s African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) who are providing all the technical equipment, notably a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV), for exploring the little known deep marine ecosystems. Fisheries Department researchers and fisher communities members will be able to witness the surveys of the ecosystems and benthic fish species through visual means first-hand.

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While the main aim is to significantly advance scientific knowledge about nature and the condition of these important habitats, it is also important that local community members are well acquainted with their surrounding environment, by being made aware of marine biodiversity and its value for sustaining human well-being and livelihoods. Beyond that, two local community development organisations, UMAMA and AIDE, will communicate biodiversity conservation and fisheries sustainability principles to school children and local community stakeholders. “An opportunity like this is not only exciting for our organisation, but also for the communities where we are involved. Our communities are willing to learn, and this collaboration will help us to educate and empower them even more”, said Faouz Fardani, Head of Communications at UMAMA. When asked about teaming up with UMAMA and AIDE, Dr Harris said, “Sharing the expedition work we will be doing and learning about the social and economic context of these communities, will contribute to advancing our research in leaps and bounds.”

Sustainability is central to all projects initiated by WILDOCEANS. Generating baseline data for data-poor ecosystems within these key biodiversity areas, will result in information being used for future conservation projects and regional marine protected area (MPA) network expansion initiatives. “We are fortunate to have Dr Lucy Woodall, Principle Scientist of Nekton, from the University of Oxford, join us to provide valuable expertise in deep reef biodiversity exploration” said Dr Samoilys.

This project possesses unique and exciting qualities. Scientists and local community members in Comoros will be empowered and equipped to continue the work long after the expedition ends. Students from the University of Comoros will be trained to use various pieces of equipment, including baited remote underwater videos (BRUV) – some of which will be left with the team in Comoros to use for further research and exploration

Author:Lauren van Niejkerk from WildLands Conservation

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