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Making marine science matter in the rainforest - 5th International Marine Conservation Congress, Kuching, Malaysia, June 2018

By Lara Atkinson, Offshore Marine Scientist, SAEON Egagasini Node
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Lara Atkinson representing SAEON at the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress in Kuching, Malaysia in June 2018.

The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) held well-attended Marine Conservation Biology symposia in 1997 and 2001, confirming the need for such international symposia dedicated to marine conservation.

The SCB have subsequently hosted a biennial meeting titled the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC).

Previous IMCC meetings were held in the USA, UK and Canada. The 5th IMCC was hosted in Kuching, Malaysia, the first time this meeting was held in a 'low income' or 'middle income' country (as defined by the World Bank). The intention of this was to open the meeting up to more delegates from countries who were previously unable to attend due to high travel and subsistence costs.

This strategy certainly enabled participation by a strong South African contingent, with no less than fourteen marine scientists and students participating in the 5th IMCC, myself being the SAEON representative at the congress.

Trawl impact science

I was invited to present an overview of the Trawl Impact Experiment project that I am currently leading in South Africa at a special session titled "Synthesizing the extent and impacts of trawl fishing across the globe". I am already collaborating with some of the international researchers who presented in this session. Attendance at this congress gave me the first opportunity to meet with them in person and discuss progress and plans for our ongoing collaborations.

Researchers presenting in the trawl impact session included, Roland Pitcher (CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere), Jan Geert Hiddink (Bangor University), Tessa Mazor (CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere), Ricardo Amoroso (University of Washington), Jenny Shepperson (Bangor University) and Petri Suuronen (FAO). This was a wonderful opportunity for me to engage with some of the global leaders in trawl impact science, some of whom I have been citing for years.


Presenters in the Special Session on synthesizing the extent and impacts of trawl fishing across the globe. From left: Tessa Mazor (CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere), Lara Atkinson (SAEON), Jenny Shepperson (Bangor University), Roland Pitcher (CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere), Jan Geert Hiddink (Bangor University), Ricardo Amoroso (University of Washington) and Petri Suuronen (FAO).

Making marine science matter

The theme of the congress was 'Making Marine Science Matter' and this was certainly achieved with six parallel sessions, over five days, each starting with inspiring plenary speakers at 08:30am and continuing until 6:00pm and evening social events. There were many opportunities for meeting new people, learning about the incredible marine conservation research and initiatives happening around the world and planning for future collaborations.

Although it is difficult to select just a few highlights because there were so many, some key moments included the inspiring plenary talk by Dr Phil Levin titled "Perception and conflict in conservation: The Rashomon Effect" - a truly fascinating talk linking the perception of conservation to the Rashomon Effect, which is defined as 'contradictory (but plausible) interpretations of the same incident by different people'.

Another highlight was attending a Marine Protected Areas session led by Dr Jane Lubchenco (who also gave the opening plenary presentation at the congress) and an evening session where students had been selected to tell their personal stories of marine conservation titled "Tales from the Sea".

The presence, engagement and enthusiasm of the strong South African group was certainly noted by many. I am pleased to have been a part of this group and represent SAEON at the congress.

Hopefully the affordable location selected by the 5th IMCC committee was successful in attracting a truly global marine conservation participation and that this model will become the norm for future such international conference events.

Sarawak, rainforests and orangutans 

Kuching is the capital city of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo bordering on the South China Sea. The state is largely covered in dense rainforest, much of it being in protected parklands and hosts eight of the world’s 54 species of hornbill.

Other well-known, but rare species that can be spotted in the region include the proboscis monkey, the irrawaddy dolphin and orangutans. Although I did not have much time to see rainforests or many of these rare species during my time in Kuching, I was fortunate enough to have a few hours before the congress started to spend two hours at an orangutan sanctuary just outside the city where six orangutans made an appearance on the day, a truly memorable experience and certainly a non-academic highlight.

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One of the six orangutans I was fortunate to see during an early morning trip to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre on the outskirts of Kuching city. This individual's name is Edwin and he is the second dominant male in the sanctuary at the age of 22 years.

View over Kuching city from hotel window with an impressive 27-metre-high silk-cotton tree (Ceiba pentangra), estimated to be about 80 years old, in the foreground.                                                              

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View overlooking the Sarawak River and Kuching city from Kuching bridge.                                                                                                    

A typical street entrance in the city of Kuching, Malaysia. This was one of our favourite streets to seek out some locally produced lunchtime meals.

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