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Vacuum cleaners of the sea: in the age of anthropogenic impacts

Photo by: Morgan Trimble.
From right to left: Sandisiwe Mafanya (South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity(SAIAB)/Rhodes University Research Student), Francesca Porri (SAIAB Senior Scientist) and Dr Puccinelli collecting information on mussel cover.

The research team working at sea collecting water samples with support from the University of Cape Town (UCT) Dive Unit.
Dr Puccinelli presenting the preliminary findings of the marine coastal biodiversity project at South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), in Makhanda.

Coastal ecosystems are among the most productive systems on Earth, providing a wide variety of services beneficial to humans. However, climate change, as well as human-made disturbances, can have profound effects on coastal systems. Increasing the stress on natural systems, either directly through pollution or indirectly through climate change, is likely to result in significant changes in marine biodiversity with repercussions for how the ecosystem functions. For these reasons, scientific research into our coastal ecosystems has become vital to try to work against the adverse effects of climate change. Dr Eleanora Puccinelli, a Postdoctoral Fellow from the Oceanography Department at the University of Cape Town, is the leader of a multi-institutional project, which aims to evaluate the role of the natural ecosystems in reducing the effects of pollution in coastal areas. While on a visit to the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), Dr Puccinelli gave a presentation on preliminary results from a major project that has been running for the past couple of years. The project focuses mainly on False Bay, a highly urbanised coastal area bounded by Cape Town and several other coastal towns.

In an interview before her presentation to SAIAB staff, students, interns, and guests from Rhodes University, Dr Puccinelli explained that the research seeks to look at the broader context of the role of the natural environment in mitigating the impact of human activity in False Bay. Dr Puccinelli and her research team have focused on the role of mussels within a coastal environment because of their properties as filter feeders. Dr Puccinelli explained: “Mussels filter whatever is in the water indiscriminately, and by doing this, they tend to accumulate pollutants and other organic compounds in their tissues, thus removing them from the water.” She also highlighted that South Africa is surrounded by a high abundance of mussels that many people use as a food resource.

Mussels are “habitat-forming species” meaning that they can create a suitable living habitat for many other species as part of their structure. It has been shown that the biodiversity within these mussel beds is higher in non-polluted areas compare to urbanised centres. One aspect of the project is looking at biodiversity associated with mussel beds, by studying the number and abundances of species within these beds to establish if there are differences between urbanised and pristine coastal areas.

“The project has brought together many people with different expertise. Therefore, we are focusing on a variety of contributory factors to pollution in coastal areas. From investigating the contributory role of heavy metals, micro-plastics, and nitrogen inputs, to organic compounds which are mostly pharmaceutical compounds that we find in water and animals,” said Dr Puccinelli. Concurrently, she emphasised very little is known about how human induced effects on the mussel impact food security. Dr Puccinelli’s concern is that “All the theoretical studies have been focusing on the Northern Hemisphere, whether in Europe or North America.” She believes that Africa is as much affected, but “there is very little knowledge available.”

These efforts to inject knowledge relevant to Africa and the issues the continent faces support the principles underpinning Responsible Research and Innovation articulated in the recently published government White Paper on Science Technology and Innovation. Responsible marine research and innovative approaches to that research will help to harness the untapped potential of our oceans, seas and coasts and open up opportunities for the growth of the “Blue Economy” while helping to find solutions to current societal challenges like food security, for the many communities that rely on the sea as their primary source of food. “This project fits very well within Operation Phakisa. Water purification and food security are the two main aspects that we want to address as these have also been identified by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals,” said Dr Puccinelli. Consequently, the goal of the project is to develop indices that can be used by national stakeholders and government institutions to provide better management of the coastal environment.

Dr Puccinelli’s talk was well received at SAIAB as it opened a space for knowledge sharing amongst the diverse audience who attended. The audience engaged her with questions and showed an enthusiasm to learn more about ocean ecosystems and anthropogenic factors faced by ocean ecosystems.

Collaborators to the project are:
Dr Eleanora Puccinelli who is the main leader at University of Cape Town (UCT) with Dr Sarah Fawcett, Dr Francesca Porri – South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), Dr Katye Altieri – UCT, Dr Paula Pattrick – South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), Professor Leslie Petrick – University of the Western Cape (UWC), Dr Conrad Sparks - Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Mutshuthu Tsanwani - Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), and Dr David Walker – CPUT.

Special thanks to
Dive Unit - UCT, Fawcett Lab Group-Oceanography Department - UCT, COST – SAIAB, and Professor Mathieu Rouault.