Discovering the West Indian Ocean

In the West Indian Ocean region, the ocean is critical to maintaining food security and livelihoods. Recently, the region has seen dramatic losses in its key fisheries due to the combined effects of climate change, overfishing and the destruction of marine habitats. Despite the fundamental importance of its fisheries, the region’s waters have been historically understudied. As a result, they are poorly understood. To address this gap in understanding, the SOLSTICE (Sustainable Oceans, Livelihoods and food Security Through Increased Capacity in Ecosystem research in the Western Indian Ocean) project launched in 2017. The four-year project, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund for £8 million, aims to provide sustainable solutions to managing fisheries and marine resources, to benefit both the local communities and the wider ecosystem.

SOLSTICE operates three projects in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa, with local scientists and researchers backed up by a core team based at the National Oceanography Centre in the UK. To investigate the ocean, the project uses state-of-the-art marine technologies – such as underwater robotics – to help them with ocean modelling. Using marine robotics in the West Indian Ocean means the team can access areas of the ocean that would normally be completely off-limits to larger research vessels. For example, the robotic gliders have been sent off to covertly collect data in known piracy areas in Somalian waters.

Dr. Zoe Jacobs, 30, is a UK-based Biochemical Modeller and has been a part of the SOLSTICE team since it began. As part of the ocean modelling team, Zoe’s role is to build high-resolution computer models that simulate the properties of the ocean, to investigate, monitor, and predict ocean conditions. To do this, the models rely on data from different source such as the satellites and robotics. These data sources provide information on water temperature, nutrients, weather and currents. Zoe explains that, ‘We have decades of data collected from all over the ocean, and then through billions of mathematical equations, you can fill in the gaps and work out what’s going on.’

Fishing village in Tanzania. Photograph: National Oceanography Centre

“I’m using these complicated mathematical models to solve real-world problems”

Solving mysteries one equation at a time

Over the course of the project, the SOLSTICE team has made numerous breakthroughs. A major breakthrough was made during an investigation into a patch of upwelling in an area known as the North Kenya Banks, in Kenya. Upwelling is a phenomenon where nutrient-rich water replaces the water at the surface. These nutrients ‘fertilize’ the surface water, encouraging the growth of plant life. This then causes fish and other marine life to swarm to the area due to the sudden abundance of food. Zoe explains, ‘There was an unusual area upwelling, and no one knew why it was there, they just knew that at certain times of the year, there were lots of fish there. So, using my model I found that there were changes in the wind that caused changes in the currents, which led to this upwelling’.  In 2018, the upwelling became so strong that the water became over-saturated with nutrients to the extent that it killed lots of the fish population, severely impacting the fisherman’s ability to earn.  Although it may seem like a small detail, understanding ocean conditions such as upwelling offer significant benefits to local communities.  Zoe cites the example of another incidence back in 1998, when the Kenyan upwelling migrated so far south that it entered Tanzanian waters, ‘This is important to know because if that’s going to happen in the future, it could cause all kinds of conflict in terms of the rights to those fisheries. So, I’m using these complicated mathematical models to solve real-world problems.’

One of the defining features of the SOLSTICE project is its collaborative approach to working with local scientists, drawing on local knowledge to understand the problems, and then ensuring the science is tailored to the problems it needs to solve.  This is something which Zoe is particularly passionate about, ‘I think solution-based science is probably the only science worth doing, otherwise, what are we doing it for?’. The team is looking to implement an early warning system for upwelling in Kenya, ‘that way the fishermen will know what’s coming, and they can put appropriate measures in place to safeguard their livelihoods.’ With the project now its final year, the ocean science SOLSTICE team is dedicated to  ensuring their work will result in long-lasting benefits for those who rely on sustainable fish stocks.

First image: Dr. Zoe Jacobs on field trip to Tanzania.  Second image: The SOLSTICE team in Tanzania setting off a robotic glider. Photographs: National Oceanography Centre.

As a young scientist herself, Zoe hopes that by nurturing local early-career scientists now, the project will continue long into the future. ‘I’d like to think that they will be instrumental in the future. I would love to go back in 10 years and see they’ve got a whole team of scientists working.’ Zoe is especially keen to increase the number of women in ocean science, ‘I can see signs of change and there’s nothing to stop young women getting involved anymore. The problem is, incredible female scientists often have to give up their work to raise children’. In Africa, this issue is pronounced, ‘It’s disproportionately affected our female, early career researchers there – they’ve struggled a lot more than their male counterparts’. Despite these challenges, one young female scientist from Zanzibar, for example, has published a paper, become an assistant lecturer, and won a scholarship to an overseas oceanography course. Zoe enthuses, ‘she’s so knowledgeable about all the fisheries and the fisherman and everything that goes on in Zanzibar. She’s a brilliant example to others.’

Looking ahead, Zoe is determined to continue to dedicate herself to ocean science that provides solutions, ‘I think looking at livelihoods and food security is the way to help societies that directly rely on the ocean’. Although there are many challenges to overcome during this decade, Zoe is optimistic about the future of the ocean, ‘I think if scientists can communicate their science better to the general public, and show how important it is, I think we can galvanise the passion of young people and make a change.

The GenO campaign sits within the UN Ocean Decade – visit the Decade website for more information.

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A productive ocean

which is sustainably harvested, ensuring food supply.