Strengthening scientific cooperation to meet the challenges of Ocean & Climate in West Africa – Interview with Baye Cheikh Mbaye

© Romy Hentinger / Fondation Tara Expéditions

As part of the project “Ocean Plankton, Climate and Development”, a 6th scientist has joined the scientific consortium of Tara Oceans. Baye Cheikh Mbaye is a modeler and native of Senegal. He will use his expertise to analyze Tara Oceans data in view of  understanding and predicting the distribution of tuna on a global scale.

What topics have you worked on so far?

For my doctoral thesis in Dakar, I studied the effects of the environment on the reproduction of Sardinella off the coasts of Senegal and Mauritania, a very important species both economically and ecologically, for these 2 countries. Afterwards, during my post-doctoral research in Quebec, I became interested in the causes for the decline in mackerel in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In particular, we found that their nesting habitat contracted under the effect of water temperature increase.

Now you’re going to work on the Tara Oceans data. What issues will guide your research?

My goal is to understand how planktonic organisms interact with the rest of the food chain, that is, fish populations. In my work I will focus on tuna populations on a global scale, a species whose importance — ecological, economic and for food security — is well known. We have a lot of information about tuna populations. My goal is to develop a plankton model. By crossing all the available information about tuna with the data collected during the Tara Oceans expedition, I will be able to construct a model of population dynamics and verify that the current description of tuna distribution is accurate. If so, my model can then be used for predictive purposes.

2019_03_16_50 © Romy Hentinger© Romy Hentinger / Fondation Tara

Why is it so important to study plankton when one is interested in fish?

Plankton is a vital element because it is the basic food for fish. If we understand how plankton is distributed in the Ocean and why, we can generally explain the state of fish stocks and their distribution. But the reasons to take an interest in plankton are in fact many-fold. For example, plankton is also the central means by which the Ocean draws in and retains atmospheric carbon. Studying this also helps to understand how the Ocean regulates the climate.

How could West African countries benefit from your research?

If I take the example of my country, Senegal, ocean issues are numerous, but fishing is undoubtedly the most essential. 600,000 people work in this sector and 70% of the animal protein intake of the Senegalese population comes from fish. We have a lot of fishery data so we know how to describe the state of the stocks, but we do not really know the physical and biological mechanisms behind these distributions. Fishermen have noticed that some species are becoming scarce, that they have to be fished further and further from the coast. Is this an effect of overfishing? Is it migration related to climate change? To help answer these questions, one must understand the importance of plankton variability and its impact on fish stocks. The responses will be of particular interest to policy makers who could make their decisions based on sound scientific advice.

2019_03_13_37 © Romy Hentinger© Romy Hentinger / Fondation Tara

Influencing political decision-makers is one of the objectives of the seminar to be held in Dakar in 2020?

Yes, the purpose of this seminar is to create a direct contact between scientists and policy makers because communication is difficult to achieve. The goal is also to bring together West African countries, to create a framework for exchanges so that partnerships are formed between the scientific institutions of West Africa and the Tara Oceans consortium. Collaboration is still too weak in the region. Through the experience of the Tara Oceans consortium, we hope that countries will cooperate to address their common challenges such as pollution, fisheries and climate.

Interview by Margaux Gaubert

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