News » Vacuum cleaners of the sea: in the age of anthropogenic impacts

Vacuum cleaners of the sea: in the age of anthropogenic impacts

By: Lucky Dlamini – WWF-SAIAB Communications Intern
Edited by: Penny Haworth – SAIAB Communications Manager 

Sandisiwe Mafanya (SAIAB/Rhodes University Research Student), Dr Francesca Porri (SAIAB Senior
Scientist) and Dr Puccinelli collecting information on mussel cover. (Photo by: Morgan Trimble.)

Coastal ecosystems are among the most productive systems on Earth, providing a wide variety of services beneficial to humans. However, climate change as well as manmade disturbances can have profound effects on coastal systems. Increasing the stress on natural systems, either directly through pollution or indirectly through climate change, is likely to result in significant changes in marine biodiversity with repercussions for how the ecosystem functions. For these reasons, scientific research into our coastal ecosystems has become vital to try and work against the negative effects of climate change. Dr Eleonora Puccinelli, a Postdoctoral Fellow from the Oceanography Department at the University of Cape Town is the main leader in a multi-institutional project which aims to evaluate the role of the natural ecosystems in reducing the effects of pollution in coastal areas. While on a visit to the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), Dr Puccinelli gave a presentation on preliminary results from this major project that has been running for the past couple of years. The project focuses mainly on False Bay, a highly urbanised coastal area bounded by Cape Town and several other coastal towns.

In an interview before her presentation to SAIAB staff, students and interns and guests from Rhodes University, Dr Puccinelli explained that the research seeks to look at the wider context of the role of the natural environment in mitigating the impact of human activity in False Bay. Dr Puccinelli and her research team have focused on the role of mussels within a coastal environment because of their properties as filter feeders. Dr Puccinelli explained: “Mussels filter whatever is in the water indiscriminately, and by doing this they tend to accumulate pollutants and other organic compounds in their tissues, thus removing them from the water.” In addition, she highlighted that South Africa is surrounded by a high abundance of mussels that many people use as a food resource.

Mussels are “habitat forming species” meaning that they can create a suitable living habitat for many other species as part of their structure. It has been shown that the biodiversity within these mussel beds is higher in non-polluted areas compare to urbanised centres. One aspect of the project is to look at the biodiversity associated with mussel beds, by studying the number and abundances of species within these beds in order to establish if there are differences between urbanised and more pristine coastal areas.

The research team working at sea collecting water samples
with support from UCT Dive Unit.

“The project has brought together many people with different expertise. So, we are focusing on a variety of contributory factors to pollution in coastal areas. From investigating the contributory role of heavy metals, micro plastics, and nitrogen inputs, to organic compounds which are mostly pharmaceutical compounds that we find in water and in animals,” said Dr Puccinelli. Concurrently, she emphasised that very little is known about how human induced effects on the mussel impact food security. Dr Puccinelli’s concern is that “All the theoretical studies have been focusing on the Northern Hemisphere, whether in Europe or North America.” She believes that Africa is as much affected but “there is very little knowledge available.”

These efforts to inject knowledge relevant to Africa and the issues the continent faces support the principles underpinning Responsible Research and Innovation articulated in the recently published government White Paper on Science Technology and Innovation. Responsible marine research and innovative approaches to that research will help to harness the untapped potential of our oceans, seas and coasts and open up opportunities for the growth of the “Blue Economy” while helping to find solutions to current societal challenges like food security, for the many communities that rely on the sea as their main source of food. “This project fits very well within Operation Phakisa. Water purification and food security are the two main aspects that we want to address as these have also been identified by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals,” said Dr Puccinelli. Consequently, the ultimate goal of the project is to develop indices that can be used by national stakeholders and government institutions in order to provide better management of the coastal environment.

Dr Puccinelli presenting the preliminary findings of the marine coastal biodiversity project
at SAIAB, in Makhanda.

Dr Puccinelli’s talk was well received at SAIAB as it opened a space for knowledge sharing amongst the diverse audience who attended. The audience engaged her with questions and showed an enthusiasm to learn more about ocean ecosystems and anthropogenic factors faced by ocean ecosystems.


Collaborators to the project are:

Dr Eleonora Puccinelli who is the main leader at UCT with Dr Sarah Fawcett, Dr Francesca Porri – SAIAB, Dr Katye Altieri – UCT, Dr Paula Pattrick – SAEON, Prof Leslie Petrick – UWC, Dr Conrad- Sparks – CPUT, Mutshuthu Tsanwani – DEA, and Dr David Walker – CPUT.

Special thanks to

Dive Unit UCT, Fawcett Lab Group-Oceanography Department UCT, COST – SAIAB, and Prof Mathieu Rouault.