30 April 2015
“Don’t worry, there are plenty more fish in the sea!” That’s a classic idiom you usually say to make somebody feel better. But are there really plenty more fish at sea? Well, according to research, this may not be the case (Worm, B. et al 2006) “unless the current situation improves, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by 2048”. This is a concern especially in Southern Africa, where the productivity of the Benguela upwelling system has been exploited over the last 60 years! Despite important progress made over the last ten years in restoring and improving the state of southern African’s marine resources, significant challenges remain. You might not be aware but one of the main environmental issues today is that people are taking far more fish out of the ocean, than can be replaced. Overfishing is a destructive activity, resulting in declined fish populations to the point where their survival is being threatened with overall devastating consequences to the ocean ecosystems. Our oceans, which provide us with food, recreation and so much more, need our help! So, what to do? Well, scientific research can help us to assess the impact of human activities and environmental change on marine ecosystem dynamics.
In particular, seabirds are telling us that our oceans are not happy. In South Africa our beloved African Penguin, photogenic Cape Gannet and neglected Cape Cormorant are all listed as threatened and their populations have been sharply decreasing over the last decades. But Swift Terns are bucking this trend! They are the only locally-breeding seabird that specialise on small pelagic fish whose numbers are increasing! Why you ask? Well… this is where I come in! In the last 3 years, I have been studying this species with the goal of answering this question. I started this project in 2013 as MSc at the PercyfitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town and recently upgraded to a PhD. When I saw the position for this project… I thought “this is perfect for me!” Despite the fact I was living in Australia, I decided to join this adventure in South Africa! I like challenges, it was my tu(e)rn!
A gifted friend of mine (Francesco Ciulla) pictured the situation of seabird in the Benguela Ecosystem with this funny cartoon:
Swift Terns is showing a contrasting trend compared to other species which live on the same marine environment and rely on the same fish resources (small pelagic fishes), and believe or not this species has barely been studied in the last 30 years. I would be the first studying in details this specie…what a privilege! Do you want to know another privilege? One of the main goals of my research is to study Swift Terns diet by taking photos of adults holding fish on their bills….well I love taking photos of birds and sometime I get good ones like this:
So, where was I?… ok right… I was leaving Australia to join this adventure in South Africa…(did I mentioned that just before to get the position I injured my knee breaking my ACL and was barely able to move?) Well… despite the unfortunate event, I arrived in Cape Town on the 23 of January 2013 and 3 weeks later I was already in the field… (limping)… in Robben Island! Robben Island… what a particular place! The first penguin I saw there, was squashed on the road… what a welcome! What happened next? Well I will tell you the next time.