#05 2021

MzanSea – showcasing South Africa’s diversity of marine ecosystems

This article is based on a news release issued by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)

The MzanSea project aims to connect South Africans with the diverse marine ecosystems in our oceans. For this purpose, a new website, a children’s activity book and a set of fact sheets have been developed. 

Countrywide celebrations kicked off in the third week of October with an online education outreach session organised by Thomas Mtontsi, science engagement officer at NRF-SAEON’s Egagasini Node, who was part of the project development team.  

Three oceans, many ecosystems  

South Africa is a country surrounded by three connected oceans, but while people are generally familiar with the wide range of ecosystems on land – forest, fynbos, savanna, grasslands and more, many regard the sea as just a single biome. However, the sea has many different ecosystem types, each with their own inhabitants, different ways of functioning and different benefits to humans.

Animal forests such as these fragile lace and stony corals inhabit rocky parts of the slope off East London (Photo: ACEP Deep Forests Project)

Muddy seabed relies on fresh water and sediments transported by rivers to support fisheries for sole, prawns and crabs (Photo: ACEP Deep Forests Project)

While people may be familiar with rocky shores, kelp forests and coral reefs, they generally have limited knowledge about life in deeper waters. The MzanSea book and fact sheets introduce readers to the magical animal forests, deep midnight margins and liquid highways that connect ocean basins, nations, ecosystems and cultures. The MzanSea website takes visitors to undersea mountains or seamounts, to submarine canyons or the hidden life of sandy and muddy shelves.

The MzanSea products not only include elements about why and how to care for ocean ecosystems, but also profiles young marine scientists studying different ecosystem types.  

Revealing the diversity of ecosystems beneath the ocean surface  

The MzanSea team noted that many marine scientists forget what a privilege it is to experience and explore marine ecosystems, so they decided to share their experiences with others.

Professor Kerry Sink, principal scientist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) explained that she was once asked in an interview what superpower she would like to possess. She responded that she would like to be able to part the sea – like the biblical Moses – to reveal just for a moment the incredible diversity of ecosystems beneath the ocean surface.

‘’The MzanSea team are working to help realise the dream of sharing the amazing marine ecosystem diversity in South Africa,’’ said Sink.

When asked about the project impact, Dr Judy Mann-Lang, a project developer at the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR), said, ‘’I am excited that for the first time, South Africans and indeed people around the world, will have the chance to explore our fantastic ocean ecosystems. These educational resources are significant because they will build the ocean literacy that is needed to develop South Africa’s blue economy. For example, if we want to do mining in the ocean, we need to understand the ecosystems we are mining.”

Epinephelus summana, the summan grouper, photographed at Sodwana Bay, located on the east coast of South Africa (Photo: Shutterstock)

Caring for marine ecosystems  

The MzanSea project was made possible by an international research collaboration known as the One Ocean Hub, which aims to transform our response to the challenges facing our ocean and influence decisions and practices that shape the future of the ocean by promoting sustainability and justice.

Sink, also a professor at Nelson Mandela University, explains how the Hub spans different disciplines and brings multiple forms of knowledge together to help make wise and fair decisions about our oceans.