Nigel is forging ahead with what he hopes may become a 23-year-long survey of the recovery of Seychelles’ southernmost reefs. In 1999, he established the Aldabra Marine Programme (AMP) and studied the reefs until 2008, tracking their recovery after a strong coral bleaching event in 1998. Now, after a 13-year-long hiatus, he is covering survey sites between four key islands and reef systems: Aldabra, Assumption, Astove and St Pierre. Divers use videos to record the corals and seafloor condition, while others survey fish species that are recorded in a database for analysis.
I am a businessman by current profession, although I trained as a biologist and have maintained several lines of research in parallel with my business activities. At university, I developed a keen interest in how some shark (notably the bull shark) and ray species can penetrate into fresh water. This led to a PhD study in West Africa to capture small sawfish that are found in the Casamance River in Senegal and in the River Gambia. The idea was to maintain them in captivity and then discover under controlled conditions how sawfish (a ray) can transition from sea to fresh...
To continue the long-term surveys of the coral reefs of four remote coral islands in the southern Seychelles and to discover how quickly reefs can recover from stressful events such as coral bleaching and cyclone damage.
Coral reefs face worldwide existential threats from human activity. Aldabra, the largest raised atoll in the Indian Ocean, is fully protected from direct human influence. It is one of the last remaining pristine coral reef ecosystems in the world. Neighbouring reefs at Assomption, Astove and St Pierre islands also help to maintain the high biodiversity supporting the reefs of the southern Seychelles. This project will continue to provide the long-term data needed to help in their conservation.
‘Once on shore, Wright and I ran around like lunatics, mapping and collecting. It was immediately apparent that Aldabra was one of the most remarkable islands on earth.’ These words were written by the late Dr David Stoddart, whose love affair with Aldabra began in 1966. He even named his daughter Aldabra! Stoddart was instrumental in helping save Aldabra from becoming a military base. Instead the Royal Society set up a research station on the atoll and it became one of the most protected areas in the Indian Ocean. Most of the ecological and geological work there focused on the terrestrial environment. Marine science and coral reef activities followed, but they were specific projects that were short-term and limited to the atoll. When I and my co-workers established the Aldabra Marine Programme (AMP) in 1999 after a severe coral bleaching event in the region, we realised that understanding the recovery of the coral reefs in the southern Seychelles from this significant coral kill required a long-term study that included other locations in the region. Over the following 10 years AMP returned to the southern Seychelles region seven times, conducting surveys in the Aldabra Group at Aldabra Atoll, Assomption and Astove islands and in the Farquhar Group at St Pierre Island. These AMP regional surveys came to an abrupt halt after December 2008 due to piracy in the region. We now plan to resume our surveys at the original locations we set up in 1999. Much has happened in the intervening years, including several new bleaching episodes, and this gives us a unique opportunity to continue working as the same team and to build on the substantial database that we began at the turn of the century.
The general aim is to provide long-term data on the changes to the coral reefs and reef fish community at Aldabra Atoll, Assomption, Astove and St Pierre islands using the same research team and same methodologies established in 1999. The first objective will be to relocate each of the permanent underwater survey sites on the outer reef of each island. They are marked by lead core survey lines, which by now will be well encrusted with coral and are likely to need replacing. Secondly, we will resurvey the sites using the exact same methods as before. Employing the same team of scientists will give us a very high level of consistency. Finally, we will locate and replace the underwater temperature probes (thermometers) that we left in 2008. Their batteries will have expired after several years, but we expect to be able to retrieve the data. We will then deploy new sets of temperature probes, setting them to record temperatures continuously every hour.
Demian’s team is developing tools that help border control officers identify illegal shark products. His project is sifting through ‘rhino ray’ DNA sequences looking for differences in code between the guitarfishes, giant guitarfishes and wedgefishes nicknamed for their pointy snouts (and Endangered status). Months of testing will help ensure only rhino ray DNA is targeted before the team flies to Hong Kong to help officials use a portable DNA tester. This project will add to the arsenal currently being used to identify illegal shark fins moving across borders, and help stop the trafficking of ‘rhino ray’ fins.
Aristide created a citizen science platform and mobile app for fishers across Cameroon’s 400 km coastline to record sightings of sharks, rays and marine life. These photos are uploaded to iNaturalist where they are identified and will serve to create Cameroon’s first elasmobranch atlas. Together with his team, Aristide ensures data are being uploaded, visits fish landing sites to assess bycatch and measure sharks, and scours the beaches to check for strandings and sea turtle nests. He collects tissue samples of threatened species in these visits that can give more insights into the diversity, population size and structure of vulnerable sharks.
Ali is collaborating with researchers across North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to develop support tools for guitarfish conservation. As an advocate, much of her work is completed behind a computer and locked in meetings, but her goal is to help bring awareness to the Threatened status of guitarfish in the Mediterranean. As the current Director of Conservation for the Shark Trust, Ali represents a large number of regional partners to engage with governments, develop new resources and coordinate guitarfish conservation activities.