Experiences from KMFRI scientists onboard RV Mtafiti and other research vessels plying the Kenya coast: By Dr. Melckzedeck K. Osore and Ms. Mary B. Ontomwa, KMFRI, Mombasa, Kenya
The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic began to manifest in the social life and profession by March 2020 leading to myriads of disruptions and including travel restrictions. This situation gradually started affecting scientific field research especially on ocean cruises locally and globally, causing hitherto unimagined challenges especially to institutions based in the developing world that have dismally equipped research vessels. Newly emerging maritime nations of middle income like Kenya experienced the brunt of the pandemic in ocean research.
As a government funded entity, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) has the mandate to conduct ocean research in its territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) within the western Indian Ocean. Data and information collected yield not only new scientific knowledge that contributes to formulation of government policies, development of the Blue economy and evolution of new science for academic but also contributes various other sectors in the marine and coastal environment.
As the sole institution that conducts research on all aquatic bodies in Kenya, KMFRI plays a unique role especially through oceanic cruises on board the country’s only Research Vessel (RV) Mtafiti in the Indian Ocean and various smaller Marine Vessels (M/V) on Lake Victoria. These vessels are instrumental in gathering information on fish stocks and trends, limnology and oceanographic data, biodiversity through plankton variability and allied information necessary for the planning and regulation of fisheries activities. Without this knowledge, monitoring fisheries and related activities for restocking and productivity of the aquatic systems of Kenya would be difficult.
KMFRI oceanographers conducts most of their research in the deep ocean including the EEZ on board RV Mtafiti. However, quite often other institutions in the neighboring countries with marine vessels often collaborate with KMFRI to conduct specialized joint research especially on fisheries and bathymetry. Common among these are wet leased ships or flagged industrial and semi industrial fishing vessels with a crew of observers and trained personnel who assist in deploying equipment, collecting various categories of oceanographic data and recording observations.
Combating COVID-19 pandemic on board
Previously, oceanic research cruises conducted by KMFRI and its collaborating partners operated smoothly. In March 2020 when the Ministry of Health (MoH) confirmed and announced the first case of COVID-19 pandemic in the country, they also suspended all on-going cruises as a measure to control and monitor the spread of the pandemic.
Prior to the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, planning and executing research cruises was routinely regulation by MoH and other relevant Government of Kenya (GoK) agencies quite smoothly with minimal rigor. The basic requirement for every sea-going personnel was possession of a sea-worthy certificate. Certification of ability to swim, survival skills as well as sound health could enable any research scientist or trainee to join a cruise and participate in a myriad of activities on board the vessel. Many changes emerged with the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, which introduced new precautions to safeguard the crew and personnel onboard. These changes and precautions have heavily affected the research activities in a very broad way as highlighted below.
Extended period for cruise preparation
Under normal circumstances prior to COVID-19 pandemic, joining a cruise took a short time with minimum preparation. During the pandemic, additional time is now required for the personnel to undergo Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests to confirm that they are COVID-19 negative before boarding the vessel for any cruise. This procedure has a significant bearing on the timing of data and sample collection.
To prevent any outbreak of COVID-19, all research and fishing vessels are required to be equipped with sanitizers and masks. Apart from testing the crew and researchers for COVID-19, they must also adhere to any newly introduced precautionary measures as directed by MoH before joining the cruises. Such preventative and precautionary measures substantially hike the operational costs of cruise beyond the initial budget.
Interference with shift program
Usually under normal conditions, the nature of work at sea requires personnel to operate in shifts in order to meet all the planned cruise objectives. Due to COVID-19 pandemic, the accommodation capacity for personnel in research vessels has reduced drastically because space is limited and MoH regulations require personnel to maintenance physical distance apart. Consequently, the crew and research teams participating in the cruise are over-worked. They also end-up multi-tasking beyond their allocated tasks.
Additionally, since everyone must maintain the recommended physical distance apart at all times, MoH prohibits individuals on board from working close to one another. This situation compromises the quality of data and samples collected during the surveys because researchers are unable to communicate effectively. Also compromised is the analysis of samples because teams that usually work together in the limited laboratory space are obliged to reduce the number of personnel in the work place. These precautionary measures delay recording of data and reporting of research observations.
Possible scenarios of outstanding challenges during a typical research cruise
COVID-19 pandemic has led to numerous challenges observed while undertaking research onboard RV Mtafiti and other vessels wet-leased for research by KMFRI and its partners. Some of the challenges impede performance of the personnel at sea or affect the quality of samples, which eventually lead to uncertainty in the research findings. Highlighted below are challenges that impede optimal performance. They include but not limited to the following:
- Technical challenges
Technical aspects comprise the most outstanding challenges that hinder researchers and crew from working closely as a team during data analyses and sample collection. Team collaboration in handling research equipment e.g. during retrieval of nets or hoisting of probes becomes a major challenge because individuals require to sanitize as frequent as possible.
- Operational challenges
Observation of the required physical distance between personnel limits the extent to which they can work effectively and this possess difficulty where operation requires much work force.
- Convivial challenges
Personnel encounter social challenges from confinement of living together and sharing while onboard the research vessels. These may subject personnel to fear of contamination or contacting COVID-19 in case the tests failed to detect cases due to one reason or another. This fear limits the number of personnel at the dining and working areas, creating an atmosphere of antisocial.
- Discussion of progress
It is not possible to conduct small meetings in between cruised to discuss the research progress and preliminary findings as space is limited and there is always need to keep physical distance.
- Work schedule
Meticulous planning is necessary to ensure completion of most of the work within the cruise period. Since the number of personnel is also limited, they have to work under a tight schedule. During the night and at odd hours is when they do most of the work to achieve the goals of the research cruise.
- Accommodation cabins
Most fishing ships and research vessels often have very limited space for sleeping quarters. This calls for sharing of sleeping cabins among 2 to 4 personnel, which has emerged to be a daunting challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of the rigorous and careful process that the personnel undergo in PCR testing prior to boarding the vessels, some of them could be asymptomatic and become full-blown COVID-19 cases during the cruise hence putting others at the risk of contracting the disease.
- Movement restrictions
Corridors in the vessels are often narrow and allow only one person to pass at a time. Therefore, free movement is generally restricted in most vessels. Exacerbating the situation is the rough ocean, currents and waves. So, one requires extra support by holding the grills or the sidewalls of the vessel. This situation necessitates regular sanitization by the personnel and proper fumigation of the vessel, which is not possible to undertake regularly – hence putting the health of the personnel at risk.
Telephone communication in the high sea beyond terrestrial limits is often poor due to limited internet connectivity. This situation restricts communication between personnel with families members back at home and colleagues at the work places. Anxiety from Family about COVID-19 and the wellbeing of personnel at sea and vice versa can disrupt research operations onboard. Broadcast from media sources is inaccessible at sea due to poor connectivity creating self-imposed news blackout. Only the captain’s radio, which has limited use, keeps track of the cruise transects, position, land base and other vessels plying nearby.
Health facility access
Some fishing vessels wet-leased for research are equipped with medicine and first aid personnel though not all. In cases of severe illness, it is not easy to access emergency health facilities. The crew treat such instances very seriously during the currents COVID-19 pandemic. The Captain in consultation with the Chief Scientist can stop the survey to address the condition of affected persons, and at some point, they can terminate the entire cruise if the situation is severe. A severe situation occurred recently during mid-water survey along the Kenya’s EEZ when personnel in the cruise contracted COVID-19. Lately following introduction of the 2-dose COVID-19 vaccination, the situation is beginning to improve drastically for cruise personnel. However, it remains a challenge to adhere to the vaccination schedule since work schedule in the cruises can detain personnel at sea beyond the specified period for the next dose.
Cultures, religion and traditions
Personnel working in wet-leased vessels originate from different countries with varying ethnicity, culture and religion. Accommodating needs of the different categories is difficulty especially regarding preparation of food, serving of meals and sharing of cabins. Reaching an amicable consensus for everyone on the time, mode and location of worship can be tricky.
Health and stress at sea – my space
Dealing with the same people daily create monotony, causing interference to others or infringement of one’s space by others. This vary depending on location - in the engine room, on the deck, laboratories and in the common room. Research vessels usually have only few personnel. Following restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers is currently even lower. Due to this, the personnel in the vessels may experience a lot of boredom as they encounter the same people in the same place over long intervals between sampling/recording sessions. In some vessels, the crew are restricted for many days from venturing out at ports of call. They may become depressed, stressed and begin to work under duress.
Way Forward – Is adherence to full MoH regulations impossible?
Assessing the type of work and related activities undertaken by crew and scientists onboard a typical vessel such as R/V Mtafiti, it is near impossible for them to follow and adhere fully to the MoH guidelines and regulations for mitigating COVID-19 Pandemic. Nevertheless, with time they can re-adjust to conducting scientific research in a confined space in the high sea, sharing space in the tiny cabins, keeping physical distance, wearing masks constantly, sanitizing regularly and maneuvering the narrow corridors. The major challenge is changing the mind-set. Therefore, both the crew and researchers ought to re-evaluate the current situation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and to reset their mental state. It is not easy, but through constant adjustments and foresight consideration, research scientists can reset their mental state.
Nothing is impossible in science.