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Science Society learn about marine conservation in Dorset and Madagascar

On Friday 11 November we were delighted to welcome Dr Josie Pegg from Sparsholt College, who gave the final Science Society lecture of the term. Here Head of Science, Mike Kearney, gives his report of the lecture.

Josie's career started with a love of surfing that turned into a passion for marine biology. Jobs with the environment agency and the fisheries office followed. An opportunity to work in Madagascar was taken and her career took off in a new and exciting direction. Madagascar, an island off the coast of Mozambique, is around the size of France. Josie's work took her to the very northern tip of the island in a massive bay near the town of Diego Suarez and an island called Nosy Hara, a special reserve that the local government wanted to turn into a national park. Part of her work was gaining evidence to support this plan.

The local marine life was very special. Humpback whales would use the bay as a place of refuge with their offspring before migrating. The whales were not part of the study but they often came close, as they seemed curious about the boat and its engine noise. Extensive coral reefs ring the whole of the island, supporting a wide range of species from the familiar clown fish, to lion fish and remora. The Mozambique Channel has a great many sharks, although Josie saw few of them when diving. The reefs have a lot of colour in them, from spotted morays to sponges and nudibranchs. These latter can eat jellyfish, recycling the stinging cells to cover their surface as a defence. 

Moving to Dorset there is still a wide range of marine life. We don't get big sharks but there are lots of rays, including thornbacks and undulate, the latter of which are a protected species. There are no coral reefs but there are corals, such as the sea fan, which grows only up to one centimetre a year and its fragility makes it vulnerable to various marine activities. Josie’s work in Dorset has included working with Seasearch. Volunteer divers were trained to go out and gather evidence to support the setting up of marine conservation zones. The importance of the habitats had to be confirmed. A protected area is not one that is to be left alone completely, but controls on use of the environment to avoid damaging the ecology.

The threats to the marine environment can come from a range of sources. For example, in Madagascar the keeping of zebu meant deforestation to provide grazing. This process releases the soil that washes into the sea and can kill off the coral. Mangrove swamps have been plundered for building material and to make charcoal. The mangrove is cleared which exposes the sea to more run-off from the land and storm surges are not blocked from inundating the land, which can again carry soil and silt back into the sea. Fishing for subsistence can mean the taking of species that should be protected. Dugongs were fished to extinction many years ago. Commercial fishing can be a problem in the UK. This is part of local culture, history and industry, but can come into conflict with conservationists. A surprising impact can come from ballast water picked up from one part of the world and deposited many miles away, dropping off species like slipper limpets that can badly affect a different ecosystem. Temperature changes can kill coral reefs and bleaching has been well documented in Australia, a consequence of climate change. New species are also moving great distances as the climate changes, threatening existing environments.

The challenges to working in conservation are sometimes unforeseen. Josie was in Madagascar at the time of a coup d’état. With the government overthrown, there were no ministers to apply to for permits and visas. Back at home the fisheries industry is facing an uncertain future with Brexit coming. A lack of infrastructure can be a problem in remote places. The whole national parks service of Madagascar had just two sets of scuba kit.

So what was the day job? Diving and swimming along a line across the seabed, one person would survey the fish seen and another would look for invertebrates and another note the coral present. The backup comes from those looking at the legal process of setting up the conservation area. The scientists recorded the species present and the risk to the environment from outside factors. Can they show that the area is important enough to deserve protection? Facts are needed beyond just liking a beautiful place. 

In Dorset the work has paid off with a range of newly designated marine conservation zones having been set up. These areas now have to be protected by law. In Madagascar, Nosy Hara is now a national park with special protection. It also attracts tourists and their money helps to support the park. These two very different parts of the world have some similar problems and are equally deserving of the attention paid by Josie and her team, and the protection they are now getting.