I explore my people’s sacred space to protect biodiversity

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As a deep-sea researcher at South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, I lead marine research that helps the country to reach its ocean-sustainability goals, especially the establishment of marine-protected areas (MPAs). MPAs are like national parks, but in the ocean.

To establish MPAs, we need to know what lives in them. I spend about half my time on the ocean, sampling species. Otherwise, I’m analysing data, planning expeditions and advising the minister on issues such as granting marine oil and gas permits.

In this picture, I’m standing on the observer platform of our research vessel, the RV Algoa. As expedition chief scientist, I am responsible for the scientific crew.

One area of continuing MPA research is Cape Canyon, off Western Cape. It’s a massive undersea system, up to 3 kilometres deep. We survey marine life there as a guide for where to establish MPAs.

Our recent study (Z. Filander et al. Front. Mar. Sci. 9, 1025113; 2022) documented seabed-dwelling animals in Cape Canyon, including marine sponges, deep-water corals, a rare sea urchin (Dermechinus horridus) and an ancient sea star (Brisinga sp.). The canyon head of Cape Canyon has since been made into an MPA.

My tribe, the amaBhaca of the Nguni people, has a strong tie with the ocean that began with our most-ancient ancestors. We go to the beach every New Year, but just to stand at the water’s edge. The ocean is a sacred space: we don’t interact with it.

Some in my community viewed my work as disrespectful because I had not remained on the shore. I explained my research and why I do it to my community members — who are now excited by my work.

As a Black and Indigenous female researcher who advises the government, I strive to ensure that marginalized communities’ perspectives are accurately represented. I address past injustices using ocean sciences as a vehicle for change.

Source: Ecology -

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