Every year between May and July, billions of sardines “run” up the coast of southeast Africa, creating a massive feeding frenzy for the predators that devour them and a natural ecological spectacle that draws thousands of tourists to witness the event.
It’s a migratory phenomenon that could soon earn the distinction of being nominated as a UNESCO Marine World Heritage Site, and if that happens, it may be in part thanks to the contributions of a post-doctoral fellow at the university’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research.
Nigel Hussey, a marine expert whose research is focused largely on the ecology of sharks, was recently invited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to participate on a panel considering the designation of a number of new marine world heritage sites in the Indian Ocean. He made an arduous 37-hour journey to the French island of Réunion off the east coast of Madagascar earlier this month to meet with politicians, government bureaucrats and other marine experts.
Inspired by the massive Monarch butterfly migration which occurs every year just north of Mexico City and was named a world heritage site in 2008, Dr. Hussey suggested the sardine run should be considered for the same designation.
“I thought it was a great example of a unique phenomenon in a marine environment,” said Hussey, who witnessed the run several years ago during a survey flight with the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board.
UNESCO normally designates ecosystems, cities, buildings and monuments as world heritage sites if they have outstanding cultural or natural importance, but will make exceptions for natural phenomena if they meet the criteria, Hussey said.
The panel he sat on agreed to recommend the sardine run in addition to nominating a group of “serial sites” or biodiversity hotspots in the channel which runs between Mozambique and Madagascar. That area, Hussey said, has a diverse range of species and oceanographic characteristics that make it one of the most unique marine sites on the planet. In fact, it’s home to the coelacanth, an ancient breed of fish that evolved about 400 million years ago and was believed to have gone extinct until it was rediscovered there in 1938.
The recommendations will be forwarded to UNESCO and it could take up to two to three years before a decision is made, Hussey said. All governments of countries that have territorial rights to the waters – including France, Mozambique, Madagascar, South Africa, Tanzania and the tiny island nation of Comoros – must support them unanimously, he added.
Hussey, who came to GLIER last year from Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences in Wales, said participating on the panel was one of the most outstanding things he’s ever done.
“It was an extremely productive meeting,” he said. “It was a fabulous experience to participate at that level and to better understand such an important decision-making process.”