On 27 September 2021, the French Embassy in South Africa, in partnership with the South African Department of Science & Innovation and Nelson Mandela University, organised a meeting to launch a new research programme on “The Ecological Connectivity and Oceanography in the South West Indian Ocean” (ECO-IO Project). This meeting allowed the presentation of the initial scientific outlines of the research programme. It allowed also to federate academic partners whose expertise is undeniable, both French (University of Reunion, IRD, IFREMER, TAAF…) and South African (Nelson Mandela University, South African Environmental Observation Network, South African Space Agency…). Other partners from the Comoros, Madagascar, Mozambique and the Seychelles, also expressed their interest on this occasion.
The south-west Indian Ocean basin is recognised worldwide as a “hot spot” for endemism and biodiversity. For this reason, the region is home to many marine reserves, which not only play an essential role in maintaining ecosystems, but also in reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
A crucial element, often emphasised in marine spatial planning, is the ecological connectivity that governs the exchange of individuals moving through spatially fragmented habitats during different life stages. Detailed knowledge of the distribution of animals, their movements and their interactions with their environment is indeed essential for the implementation of effective marine spatial planning strategies to assess the effectiveness of marine protected areas and to identify new areas for priority protection.
The weak interaction between the governing bodies of protected marine areas at regional, and sometimes even national, levels limits reliable measurement or modelling of this ecological connectivity. The resulting marine spatial management decisions are therefore uncertain.
This new ECO-IO research programme aims to improve our scientific knowledge and increase the potential for research excellence in the fields of marine ecology, marine spatial planning, oceanography and climate science, by using technology and enhancing the exchange of experiences as a source of collective development in the southwest Indian Ocean basin. Based on the establishment of a strong collaborative network of the governing bodies of marine protected areas, government agencies and international research organisations with common conservation concerns, the ECO-IO programme aims to further investigate ecological connectivity in the southwest Indian Ocean, but also the impact of climate change on ecosystems and biodiversity conservation. This approach aims to promote ambitious initiatives to achieve conservation goals more effectively while developing coordinated strategies to combat climate change in this part of the world.
ECO-IO will focus on the study of emblematic marine species of the southwest Indian Ocean (sea turtles, humpback whales, sharks, seabirds, etc.) and the environment in which they live. It is based in particular on collecting intensively biological and oceanographic observations (biologging, acoustic monitoring, genetics, satellite measurements, etc.) and the implementation of numerical modelling of habitat, ocean and climate. In this respect, ECO-IO aims not only to acquire a better understanding of the ecology of the megafauna, but also to provide essential data for studying the properties and evolution of the tropical Indian ocean including the variability of the oceanic environment on various spatial and temporal scales, the role of eddies and currents in the Mozambique Channel, the air-sea interactions and the intensification of tropical cyclones. The intensive use of climate models will make it possible to assess, in particular, the impact of climate disruption on ocean structure, but also the consequences of these changes such as acidification, heat waves, sea level rise and oxygen and chlorophyll-A concentrations on ecosystems and megafauna.
By training researchers and students in the southwest Indian Ocean region in state-of-the-art modelling tools, which could then be deployed at the national level by the regional bodies involved in the project, ECO-IO will significantly increase the research capacity in numerical modelling in the region. Although primarily focused on conservation and climate issues, it will also provide a body of new knowledge and data that can be used to support the development of new research projects in many related areas such as social sciences, the blue economy or general adaptation to climate change.