Diversity and abundance at Ascension Island. Image: Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG).

The South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) was created by the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) in 2012 when the need for an umbrella organization to produce environmental science within the Falkland Islands and the South Atlantic became evident. The aim was to enhance and encourage existing local research activities and to increase the volume of scientific research conducted within the Falklands and the other South Atlantic Overseas Territories (SA OTs), both locally and internationally, with a focus on localizing research and work that is currently being conducted elsewhere by other researchers and institutes. The scope of the research centre encompasses environmental research in geology, climate change, oceanography, inshore marine environment, fisheries, agriculture, biodiversity and renewable energy, extending geographically across all the UK SA OTs, from the equator down to the ice in Antarctica. One goal was also to produce a GIS Centre, based in the Falkland Islands, which would provide GIS knowledge and expertise throughout the SA OTs. However, the purpose of the Institute is not only to conduct ocal and international research into the natural and physical sciences, but also to teach students and build further capacity between the SA OTs and other international research institutes.

In September 2013, a GIS specialist was recruited thus forming the foundation of the GIS Centre. Work in this area and capacity building across the SA OTs has begun and is progressing rapidly. The GIS officer is crucial in furthering many of the projects undertaken by SAERI both within the Falkland Islands and in the other SA OTs, but also provides training and expert help to the other FIG departments and sectors.

Tree kelp Lessonia vadosa Image: SMSG

Thus far, however, the main focus of the work undertaken by SAERI has been on the marine environment and fisheries-related research. The marine and terrestrial environments of the South Atlantic and South Atlantic OTs are relatively poorly understood compared to other world regions. Several short-term projects have been undertaken since its establishment, including creating a baseline database of marine biodiversity using data collected in the 1920s to 1930s by the Discovery Investigation cruises, in a joint project led by the Marine Biological Association. In a similar vein, in conjunction with Aberystwyth University an MSc project looked at data collected on the benthic fauna of Adventure Sound on the east island of the Falklands, to determine the species richness and communities of the species and link these to environmental variables within the area. The Institute also has three established PhD students, joint with the University of Aberdeen. One PhD student is investigating the uncertainties inherent within the South Georgia mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari) surveys. Another project aims to address the gaps in knowledge about the algal biodiversity of the Falkland Islands, with particular focus on identifying the numerous red algae found in these waters. The project will also compare the algae species and species distribution between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. The third PhD began in January 2014 and is modelling the life history and reproductive biology of the Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) in South Georgia. SAERI has also found the funding for a PhD to examine coastal benthic ecology in tem poral and spatial scales for a Falkland Island graduate starting in April 2014.

(Left: Patagonian toothfish Dissostichus eleginoides. Image: Dr Martin Collins University of Aberdeen.)

This year is proving to be an exciting year for SAERI and will see a further increase in the faculty numbers, with four new projects commencing by April. One such, funded by the FIG, is exploring the poorly understood inshore marine resources of the Falkland Islands. Today, there are still areas where the biodiversity of the shallow marine environment is not properly known and the life history, and therefore suitability for sustainable exploitation, of many of the species found in these waters is not understood. Except for a small crab fishery in the south-east of the Islands, little artisanal fishing occurs within the coastal waters; however, it is believed that there are several inshore species which may lend themselves to sustainable exploitation. The project therefore aims to determine both the life history of several candidate shallow marine invertebrate species and their potential as a fished resource. The FIG sees the importance of understanding the near shore systems before fisheries take off, something that is not evident in many other regions where sadly, science and assessment have to play catch up against the backdrop of boom and bust scenarios.

Left to right: Patagonian scallop Zygochlamys patagonica, painted shrimp Campylonotus vagans, naked urchin Arbacia dufresnii. Images: Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG).

With the burgeoning oil industry due to take off within the next few years, understanding the marine environment with respect to the habitats and species present, both inshore and offshore, becomes even more crucial. Some works have been conducted throughout the past century, but there are still many areas where there is little to no knowledge about the marine environment, and even the data that do exist as yet remain separate and un-collated. Marine predators, in particular seabirds such as penguin and albatross and pinnipeds, are potentially at risk from oil-related activities, but comparatively  little is known about their behaviour, making it difficult to determine potential impacts on these top marine predators. With the onset of oil production forthcoming it was decided that this gap in the knowledge base should be addressed. Therefore, the Falkland Islands Offshore Hydrocarbons Environmental Forum (FIOHEF), comprising FIG, the Falkland Islands Petroleum License-holders Association (FIPLA) and other members of the private sector, created two projects which would identify (and in the longer term, address) these knowledge gaps within the marine environment. Both projects will collect, collate and analyse extant data, with respect to benthic ecology, oceanography and seabird and pinniped behaviour and life history, respectively. The marine predators’ position will also involve tagging of pinnipeds and seabirds in order to understand more of their foraging behaviour.

Left to right: Ribbed mussel Aulacomya ater, giant mussel Choromytilus chorus​  and Patagonian red octopus Enteroctopus megalocyathus. Images: Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG).

Another up-coming project will address the lack of a strategic approach to marine spatial planning within the Falkland Islands. Awarded Darwin Plus funding, the Marine Spatial Planning project aims to provide the framework for future legislation and practice with regards to marine protection. The project will entail collation and analysis of marine habitat and species data (benthic and pelagic flora and fauna), in order to determine biodiversity and conservation ‘hot spots’ which may prove to be candidate sites for future protection. The project will feed directly into other research projects and into the oil activities within the Falklands.

Since its establishment SAERI has worked closely with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). A Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG) and SAERI member of staff was the coastal marine biologist on-board the RRS James Clark Ross during a survey of the waters around both South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha. SAERI and BAS also share two of the aforementioned PhD students, and the aim is for the two Institutes to work closely together in the future. Further collaborative research surveys will be conducted on-board the BAS research vessels, and a collaborative project is being undertaken later this year involving autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs or ‘gliders’) to help to gain a better understanding of the Falkland Islands’ large and mesoscale oceanography.

Wandering albatross Diomedea exulans, king penguins Aptenodytes patagonica, elephant seal Mirounga leonine. Images: Dr Judith Brown.
 

SAERI’s goal of creating work and capacity within the other SA OTs has already begun: Darwin funding was approved (2013) for a project, in conjunction with the Ascension Island Government, aiming to substantially increase the currently poor marine biodiversity knowledge and fisheries science capacity within Ascension Island. Much of the existing knowledge about shallow marine biodiversity was established by a SAERI partner organization, SMSG, a group of volunteer divers and marine scientists based in the Falkland Islands, who conducted dive surveys at several sites around Ascension Island during 2012 and 2013. However, their funding, time and capacity was rather limited. Therefore, this project will provide three marine/fisheries scientists in order to build the understanding of the marine environment and biodiversity and also to provide the science base needed for sustainably managed inshore and offshore fisheries. Partner organisations in this project include SMSG, BAS, and RSPB.Within the Falkland Islands, SAERI have hosted several parties of visiting scientists studying geological indicators of climate change, and a PhD project will begin this year in a consortium with the Natural History Museum, Nottingham University and Imperial College. Peatlands provide a detailed record of climate and how it has changed over time and the project will investigate peatlands as records of island ecosystem sensitivity to environmental change in the South Atlantic. The intention is to study the large amount of peat found in the Falkland Islands to better understand the processes associated with the formation and transformation of peat and soil and the response of these sensitive ecosystems to climate change.

SAERI will shortly become an incorporated charitable institute and therefore other sources of funding must be found to support the many projects that are happening currently, and in the future. Obviously, grant opportunities are both limited and highly competitive therefore SAERI is involved in several consultancy opportunities, mostly focused on environmental surveys and will soon be delivering fisheries consultancy work for various international fisheries.

Dr Deborah Davidson (ddavidson@env.institute.ac.fk) and Dr Paul Brickle (pbrickle@env.institute.ac.fk).

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Dr Deborah Davidson and Dr Paul Brickle

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