VICTORIA — Oceanographers carrying out vital studies of the Indian Ocean's marine world have been idle for a year, left stranded ashore by Somalia's marauding pirates and the global armada combating them.
The flotilla deployed in late 2008 by the world's naval powers to stem piracy in the Gulf of Aden has driven the sea bandits further out in the Indian Ocean, notably towards the Seychelles.
A string of hijackings last year meant that the archipelago's boats -- from tourist yachts to the locally-based French and Spanish tuna-fishing fleets -- were stranded for months.
Some of them have gone back to sea with the deployment of soldiers or private security guards on board but a multitude of scientists from France, Belgium, South Africa and elsewhere have seen their missions aborted.
Since April 2009, five scientific campaigns have been cancelled and are being relocated to pirate-free areas, either further south in the Mozambican Channel or halfway across the globe in the Atlantic.
A European Union-financed study of tropical tuna and the ecological effects tuna fishing has on turtles and sharks often entangled in fishing gear had to be delayed.
"For security reasons, we cannot conduct the deep-sea oceanographic research we had planned in the usual areas to study tuna or shark behaviour," said Laurent Dagorn, from France's Institute for Research and Development (IRD).
"Normally we have researchers on board fishing boats to keep an eye on what is being caught, especially the by-catches. Now we can no longer have people on board because there is no space," Dagorn explained.
Michel Goujon, the director of Orthongel, the organisation representing French frozen tuna producers and boat owners, acknowledged that piracy had forced a number of scientific mission to the back burner.
"It is a negative consequence of piracy," Goujon said, pointing out however that "even before... no scientific institution wanted to risk having researchers on board a tuna fishing boat."
The risk to scientific expeditions became clear in March last year when Somali pirates prowling the Seychelles waters hijacked the Indian Ocean Explorer -- a scientific research boat which had been regularly used by the IRD -- and its seven crew members.
The sea bandits freed the crew months later in unclear circumstances but the Indian Ocean Explorer was apparently destroyed by the pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Even as they wait to resume research missions, the oceanographers have ruled out resorting to armed guards aboard vessels and prefer to move to other regions instead.
The dangers at sea have since hampered studies to gather information on the stocks of Indian Ocean tuna species (Albacore, Patudo and Listao) and the impact of fishing.
Such data, when compared to existing science on the critical plight of red tuna stocks in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, is crucial to elaborating strategies that could ensure the species' survival.
Last week, France said it wanted a ban on international trade in bluefin tuna to come into force in 18 months time in order to protect the over-fished species.
"We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation," said Dagorn. "To better manage and predict the effects of fishing on the ecosystem we need to work in the regions where the seiners are."
"Thanks to the military the (fishing) boats have regained their fishing grounds, but we researchers cannot resume our activities," Dagorn explained.
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