17.9.16 | The current funding phase of the SUTAS* Graduate School will come to a close next week with a final four-day symposium on Zanzibar. Since 2013 the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) has coordinated SUTAS with the financial support of the Leibniz Association. Six doctoral students of the ZMT and the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology (BIPS) have completed their doctorates during this time or are in the final phase of their dissertations. In this interview, the SUTAS coordinator Professor Matthias Wolff reports about the beginnings of the graduate school, the exciting research which has been done so far, and the plans for the future.

* Sustainable Use of Tropical Aquatic Systems / Nachhaltige Nutzung tropischer Gewässer

What is special about SUTAS?
Matthias Wolff: The basic idea of SUTAS was to bring together doctoral students from different research disciplines at a location in the tropics where the ZMT is already conducting research. From the outset the graduate school was designed to be interdisciplinary, which means that natural scientists and social scientists collaborate in different research fields, such as fisheries, coral reefs, sea grasses or aquaculture. The island of Zanzibar in Tanzania was chosen as location.

Why this particular tropical region?
Matthias Wolff: If you look at Zanzibar as a large socio-ecological system in which there are different resources and types of coastal use, but also a broad spectrum of different problems from pollution and eutrophication to coral bleaching as consequences of climate change, it is very exciting for us researchers to look at this complex system from many different perspectives. Together with our local partners – the Institute of Marine Science (IMS) and the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA) – we have developed research topics there. Since SUZA also conducts research in the fields of health, water quality and nutrition, there were wonderful potential synergies with one of our partners here in Bremen, the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology (BIPS). In addition to questions about the condition of the ecosystems and their resources, the researchers also focused on the issues of drinking water, nutrition and health of the local population.

Interdisciplinarity is a strong feature of the ZMT. How was this embedded into SUTAS?
Matthias Wolff: In the fisheries sector, for example, our socio-economists studied what motivates the fishermen and regulates their behaviour, thereby scrutinising the social, cultural and economic factors involved. In my research group we analysed how intensively the resources are currently being exploited and what fishing methods the fishing communities use. We wanted to know whether resources are already overfished, where there may be problems for specific fish species and whether, if applicable, management and/or protective measures should be suggested to counteract overfishing. At the same time we were also interested in the opposite case: Where may there be resources with potential for even greater use? Furthermore, other colleagues worked in the field of aquaculture. For example, our researchers tried to cultivate macroalgae with sea cucumbers and have achieved first successes in the field of multitrophic aquaculture.
Other ZMT colleagues studied the coral reefs and seagrass meadows at different locations in Zanzibar. There were several papers on the community structure of these ecosystems and the factors that influence them. The focus was on the health and the species composition of these systems. Interest also centred on possible invasive species.

What were the first results?
Matthias Wolff: We found several very interesting results. In some areas, sponges and the so-called corallimorpharia are very dominant. These are coral-like organisms that have spread quite a lot in some reefs. Now we are faced with the exciting question whether this ecosystem has just passed the tipping point and subsequently is no longer a real coral reef, that is, that we are already witnessing a “phase shift”. This is the direction our research should take in the future.
In the fisheries sector the picture is mixed. There are stocks that have been very extensively fished, but also others that can be considered quite healthy. The fishing methods include those that cause substantial damage to the seabed and its species communities. Here we should find ways to persuade the fishermen to switch to other fishing methods.

Future plans: What will happen to SUTAS from now on?
Matthias Wolff: The idea is that we will continue with SUTAS in a similar manner. SUTAS summer schools shall continue to be offered within the framework of the doctoral programme. We shall keep SUTAS as the umbrella organisation, and the basic idea is to concentrate an interdisciplinary group of doctoral students in one place. Besides Zanzibar, our research takes place in very different key regions – for example Senegal, Mauretania, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and of course Indonesia, to name just a few. We want to establish projects similar to SUTAS in these regions.

Now the final symposium is about to take place. What are the objectives?
Matthias Wolff: We want to provide a forum for all of those involved in SUTAS, in which we present the results we have achieved in the projects to the public and the local partners and then discuss these. We anticipate about 50 participants. There will be brief scientific presentations on the main topics such as fisheries, aquaculture, coral reefs, seagrass meadows, nutrition, and health. Furthermore, based on the results and the questions that arise from them, we want to determine the next research topics for a possible continuation of the research in the region. On the last day of the symposium we will present the results of the cooperation with the IMS to the local stakeholders, i.e. to the policy makers, authorities and representatives of GIZ, DAAD, WIOMSA or WWF. There, together with them, we want to discuss how the research can be continued in the region and how we can involve the stakeholders. Of course, all of the presentations will include posters so that the stakeholders, in particular, can deepen the dialogue with us and our partners.

How would you sum up the almost four years of SUTAS?
Matthias Wolff: We have conducted very successful field work in Zanzibar, first and foremost through the support of local partners. At the same time we have achieved a great deal with regard to education and training, since not only doctoral students, but also master’s students of our ISATEC programme and other master’s programmes of the University of Bremen and the Tanzanian partners were able to conduct research in Zanzibar. The collaboration with academic partners from the Bremen region – i.e. the Universities of Bremen and Oldenburg (ICBM), Jacobs University, the BIPS and the Marine Research Department, Senckenberg by the Sea Wilhelmshaven – ensured the quality and diversity of the research.

More information on SUTAS.

Check out our SUTAS blog. (alte Website)

Programm des SUTAS Abschlusssymposiums: SUTAS_Final_Symposium_Agenda.pdf