By incorporating new technologies like Virtual Reality and immersive content, drones and underwater operated vehicles (ROVs), Moving Sushi is conducting an expedition to assess the coral reef fish communities from South Africa to Northern Kenya. In this interview, Mike Markovina speaks about their agenda.
The precise focal points you have set for the African Marine Mega Transect Expedition includes; scientific contribution, open access data and media campaigns. These are ambitious goals, how do you intend to accomplish them?
I believe we must first dissect our understanding of exploration, and what it means. For us, exploration is not about climbing the highest mountain, or diving to the bottom of the ocean, it is fundamentally about the value and applicability of your contributions as an explorer to society or societal needs. During the “Marine Resource Expedition in 2008”, I learnt a valuable lesson as a fisheries scientist. It’s not what defines a fish that matters, it’s what that fish represents that we must recognize. Having spent many years in East Africa working on issues relating to illegal fishing and law enforcement; it gave me access to understand the complex relationships around fisheries and its meaning to society, which became the framework in defining our expedition goals for the African Marine Mega Transect Expedition.
Our plan is to conduct a 4-month expedition using innovative technology and a team of hard working divers to assess the coral reef fish communities from South Africa to northern Kenya. This data will allow us to show the rate of decline of the coral reefs, and allow us to predict what may happen (socially) if climate change or illegal fishing intensifies. The data will be open access on a platform we are building so scientists, governments, NGO’s have access to ecosystem-based knowledge, which is imperative if we are to tackle issues like sustainability and policy reform. Similarly, though our network in East Africa we will be able to support key government agencies like the Tanzanian Multi-Agency Task Team (MATT) in that targeted media campaigns can be used to facilitate the MATT to apprehend and arrest illegal dynamite fishermen and dealers who are destroying the reefs in Tanzania. We have built these networks over many years of hard work and trust which gives us the ability to be successful in the specific goals and aims mentioned. It is now about raising the finances and preparing the logistics to make the expedition a reality.
Funding and logistics are a key part of any social work. How do you overcome this challenge?
Funding is always a challenge and to be honest at this point a challenge we have not yet overcome. Typically marine or fisheries work is low on the philanthropic list of urgent matters to fund outside the US. East Africa is even further down that list, so combining the two means coming face to face with a “brick wall” so to speak. European or US funders are largely skeptic about funding projects in Africa that are not linked to a “well known” or established NGO or government structure, which in many ways is understandable. African philanthropy for fisheries and marine work is lacking at this point in time, so the challenge is very real and very difficult. What we are focusing on is that the African Marine Mega Transect, is “using” the coral reefs of East Africa to provide critical data, sure, but more so, we are incorporating interesting new technologies like Virtual Reality and immersive content, Drones (specific mapping), underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) etc. to go to underwater places we can’t. This invites tremendous possibilities in scientific discoveries whilst contributing to new tech innovation and testing. We believe that investors, funders or donors can utilize can capitalize on this space showcasing the expedition as a whole new era of African exploration.
Think of virtual reality displays in malls and community spaces in Kenya, Tanzania or Mozambique for example, where people can be transported underwater viewing our discoveries during the expedition in a visual context, it’s pretty exciting, and the applications endless. I speak for the team in saying that; if we could fund the entire expedition from African sources, and we can conduct this expedition as proudly African, that would be a privilege.
Once funding is secured logistics becomes less of a challenge. There is however one entity that can’t be controlled, and that is the ocean and the weather. Previous expeditions huge seas and uncompromising weather damaged our vessel, being underwater watching lightning crackle overhead, squalls and the looming fear of cyclones never leaves ones mind. During these moments it’s about your team, your professionalism and about putting your head down and getting the job done. Exploration is no walk in the park; you have to continuously adapt yourself to be successful.
A large chunk of your work is centered in Africa, how have African governments and agencies supported your work and what more can they do to support you in terms of policy, funding and awareness creation?
I have lived and worked on the oceans in Africa my whole life, and not for one day have I not appreciated that fact. Working in the fisheries sectors in African countries is challenging primarily as fisheries is not regarded as highly as other sectors like mining, communications etc. yet fisheries plays such a crucial role in household income and livelihoods. In this regard working with fisheries officials in Tanzania, Gabon, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda, and Senegal for example, I have only been met with interest in our projects, a desire to try and achieve measurable outcomes, friendliness and willingness to help. Unfortunately, the challenges make it hard to implement projects. Fisheries ministries do not have financial resources to assist in external work/expeditions and they are heavily reliant on donor aid, in which their terms of engagement are highly regulated. It is unlikely that financial support will ever materialize from government institutions but more importantly and where we have been very humbled is the willingness to participate, to understand how the data etc. can be useful to the public. The interest is there. Research institutions have always assisted us with permits, they truly understand the credibility of what we are trying to achieve, and knowing they have full access to the data means they increase their research capacity without having to spend the resources, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. I think this is important, the expeditions like the African Marine Mega Transect is not an expedition that dictates what you must do, it is there to encourage participation in a process that provides robust scientific outputs that everyone can use. It is the respect and trust one builds around these ethics that allows our colleges in East Africa to engage in policy debate, because they have the knowledge and scientists all over the world have access to the data and they can use their resources to produce the outputs as required.
Moving Sushi threads on a path that is less traveled by many, even social workers and non-governmental organizations. What motivated you? How did you muster the courage to begin despite the uncertainty?
For me it is frustrating to see how aid money is misused for example, if we only used these resources more efficiently, I would not have to beg the world over to raise funds to count fish in East Africa. This motivates me to show that we can be better. I also get frustrated by an ever-occurring situation in research on this continent, where local people are talked to and not made part of the conversation other than being a means to do the research. There needs to be shift where we stop doing research that talks about people, without including them. I feel great satisfaction when I do something that allows people to grow together; it’s not about how I collected the data. It’s how others use the data to challenge necessary policy reform. Some days it is easy and some days it is not fun, but we are dealing with people at the end of the day, not fish, and one must be inspired by our potential.
I have to revisit what keeps me motivated. As like everything in life sometimes motivation levels are at an all time low you can’t hide from it. What helps me to move on is to know that this is not a solo journey. I have a strong, passionate and dedicated partner that is by my side through thick and thin and a small team who are dedicated to getting their hands dirty. With such support, courage is not hard to muster.
Among the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations is protecting life below water. To a very large extent this highlights the immense relevance of your work. How does this make you feel?
It’s a tough question. The UN sustainable goals are fantastic in bringing global awareness to key challenges facing the global community today. However, how are these goals implemented? How do we measure success? How seriously are we taking them? These are questions that I have no answers to. Apart from a global conference each year, on the ground it is difficult to see progress. To know that our work does contributes, that it will contribute to three countries having the potential to say they have actively engaged by increasing scientific capacity in the region, now that feels incredible. I would love to see policy change and a real emphasis placed on the social well being of fishers and their sustainability.
Can you speak briefly about your current projects?
Currently, I am investing most of my time in fundraising for the African Marine Mega Transect. However, we are also working on a project in collaboration with WWF in South Africa that aims to assist the local fishing community in using new camera technologies to monitor their resources by engaging in scientific research. The project will facilitate the local fishers to become key players in obtaining the critical stock assessment data pertaining to the local fisheries around the coast. Linda, my partner, is currently working with The Mission to Seafarers in Cape Town, documenting their incredible work in assisting fishers who have succumb to slavery, trafficking and who are mistreated whilst at sea. All our projects have a common thread. It is all about people, because we believe that people are the problem, but people are also the solution.
What has been the most challenging thing on your journey?
The one sure thing about any journey is that challenges are a certainty. From an expedition point of view, it is trying to convince people that marine exploration in Africa focusing on the social, economic and biological complexities is relevant, is necessary and is worthy of investment. The constant feeling, are we are not doing enough, the feeling that despite our actions are we fighting a lost battle, it becomes your challenge, one that can consume you.
Thank you, we wish you success!
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