[NAIROBI] Researchers are analysing data on the coral reef and fish communities of the East African coastline as part of a comprehensive effort to provide the region's first ever baseline for future conservation work.
Scientists from a research expedition called the East African Marine Transect conducted a four-month study from November 2012 to March 2013 along the coastline from southern Mozambique to northern Kenya.
Divers collected the data using stereo video cameras, which have two lenses via which to capture images, mimicking human vision. This allows the size and location of fish to be measured more accurately than conventional video, and species can be identified back in the lab
Lead researcher Caine Delacy, a marine biologist from the University of Western Australia, says the team is now analysing the data collected.
Once completed, Caine says, "it will provide the much-needed baseline data on the abundance, diversity and size structures of coral reef fishes, and the broad geographical range of the sampling will allow assessment of the latitudinal changes across the region".
The data will also be compared with historical information to identify changes in the abundance, diversity and distribution of fish, determine areas that have been most severely affected by overfishing and climate change, and to assess the effectiveness of current and historical management regimes.
Caine says that while there have been calls to develop large continental-scale networks of marine protected areas, understanding the dynamics of large-scale communities has been largely ignored. Most conservation and management strategies are based on small-scale datasets.
"The most pressing impacts, such as climate change, operate at larger scales," he says, adding data representative of entire regions — like that of his project — is necessary.
The research project will also shed more light on the effects of management within marine protected areas, fisheries management strategies along the coast of Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.
The data will be useful to scientific, conservation, management and education communities throughout East Africa, and will go a long way to improving management and conservation strategies [as well as help inform] policymaking processes, says Caine.
Valentine Ochanda, an environmental planner and head of the Department of Environment and Health Sciences at the Technical University of Kenya, says the mapping of the coral reefs will help in planning and managing their resources.
"With [accurate and up-to-date] information at hand, these areas can be protected from activities that degrade the environment, for instance blast fishing, which is causing massive degradation of these ecosystems and affecting availability of fish. The information will also guide the fishing industry on the fishing zones within these protected areas, which are important habitats for marine organisms," she says.
Ochanda adds that the trans-boundary nature of coral reefs can be a recipe for disaster, as countries have different environmental and fish management regulations, with some areas protected in one country while being degraded by an immediate neighbour.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa news desk.