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Change the world


Given the resource scramble for our oceans and the use of increasingly sophisticated technology for exploration, mining and fishing on an industrial scale, we urgently need transformative ocean governance because business-as-usual is destroying our oceans. The first step is to establish a set of principles towards achieving this transformation. 

By Amanda Lombard

Since January 2020, a group of 21 senior researchers from around the world and across ecological, social, economic, industry and legal disciplines, have developed a set of 13 principles for transformative ocean governance and action. They focus on the reform required for ocean-use practices and address a combination of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Led by Nelson Mandela University’s Institute for Coastal and Marine Research, the “Principles for transformative ocean governance”, was published on 7 September in Nature Sustainability. The authors have a total of 440 years of experience gained from working in and influencing the ocean governance realm in over 30 countries.

While there are a lot of rules about sustainable governance on land, there are fewer for oceans, especially areas beyond national jurisdiction. Oceans are difficult to govern because they are dynamic and without borders, hence they require international cooperation and collaboration. 

To date, governments, industry and organisations have failed to offer equal access for all humans to the ocean environment and have failed to halt the decline in ocean health and ecosystem service delivery. Ecosystem services, such as oxygen production, sustain life on Earth and half of the Earth’s oxygen is generated by tiny plants in the ocean called phytoplankton. 

In South Africa, we have rules for catching certain species, and organisations such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sets rules for the hake fishery and compliance is required in order to sell to Europe. But this is just one species and many species lack rules. Many other species are also caught as by-catch.

The large fishing companies and the oil and gas industries have the technology to provide researchers with data such as camera footage from the oceans so that we can work together to achieve a sustainable marine environment, but so far there isn’t much willingness to do this. 

Researchers rely on grants and donor funding and there aren’t sufficient funds to pursue the work we would like to do to better understand the ocean. Even our exclusive economic zones are not well understood and the high seas beyond are even more unknown; it’s the wild west out there with few rules. 

To address these issues, we invited a group of researchers from around the world to a conference hosted by Nelson Mandela University in January 2020. The goal was to engage with the latest developments impacting ocean governance from a developmental, ecosystem-based and human-rights-based approach.

At the conference it was agreed to develop a set of ocean governance principles that work to establish a balance between the economic, conservation, social and cultural requirements of the wide range of role-players in the ocean environment. Our aim is to offer guidelines for countries and hopefully help to inform policy and enforceable regulations.

It’s taken three-and-a-half years to develop the 13 principles because we are a very diverse, transdisciplinary group, representing a wide range of needs, including legal frameworks, international and domestic politics of ocean governance, developmental approaches including inclusive and equitable development, the blue economy and SDG 14 (Life Below Water), and ecosystem-based and human rights-based approaches, including marine planning, ocean health, social justice and the role of civil society in governance. 

The 13 principles, which are elaborated on in the article, span the following areas:

  • Biological diversity: to maintain and restore biological diversity, which is key for resilient ocean ecosystems; 
  • Upholding human rights in all ocean-related activities; 
  • Adopting social-ecological systems approaches: for ocean governance to be effective, it needs to understand and embrace both the social and environmental components;
  • Policy integration: integrating cross-sectoral policies to achieve social and ecological connectivity; 
  • Metrics: the use of metrics to support ocean governance in order to gauge and report on the state of the system and trigger action; 
  • Integrated ocean management (IOM): an integrated approach that conserves species and resources and manages human activities for optimal, sustainable use; 
  • Business engagement: to coordinate transparent engagement between ocean businesses and diverse ocean stakeholders to address the interlinked and cumulative impacts of businesses on the ocean and society and to promote net positive outcomes for both; 
  • Managing and governing diverse incentives: to encourage diverse incentives and promote and enable sustainable ocean-use practices; 
  • Technological innovation: to support transformative ocean governance;
  • International mechanisms: leveraging international mechanisms that support inclusive decision-making for sustainable development and that support local-level and national-level environmental commitments such as the SDGs; 
  • Governance approaches: advocating for inclusive and adaptive approaches to the governance of dynamic, interconnected ocean systems and the ability to adapt to the status of ecosystems, including human and non-human pressures on these systems; 
  • Power dynamics: this requires appropriate responses to existing and potential power dynamics and vested interests that can inhibit the implementation of the required transformative approaches to ocean governance; and 
  • Urgent action: required across governance levels — the cumulative impacts on the ocean have amplified and the rapid deterioration of ocean health and the well-being of millions dependent on it signals that urgent action is required for the timely and effective implementation of SDG 14.

It’s not easy to govern the ocean and apportion fair access to all the competing groups. And at the same time to respect non-measurable cultural needs, such as indigenous communities whose ancestors live in the ocean and who call for it to be respected and conserved because this is their spiritual home. Exemplary work has been done in Canada to include Indigenous ocean knowledge and the needs of the First Nations.

To illustrate the transformative principles of ocean governance in action we drew on our work done to date in Algoa Bay. Since 2017 a group of us have been working on Algoa Bay’s Marine Spatial Plan (MSP), which is the first in South Africa, and will be released early in 2024. The plan has been developed by the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research and the SARChI Chair in Marine Spatial planning at Nelson Mandela University, as well as the Chair of Marine Natural Products at Rhodes University, with a number of collaborators, and with funding from the South African National Research Foundation/ Department of Science and Innovation. 

In 2019, the Algoa Bay project joined the One Ocean Hub (OOH), an international programme of “fair research partnerships for sustainable development” among the Global North-South, funded by UK Official Development Assistance. The aim is a “healthy ocean for all”.

Together, the Algoa Bay and OOH projects have brought together researchers from the biophysical sciences (including deep-sea and fisheries science), the social sciences (including anthropology and the arts), and ecological and resource economics and law (national and international law on environment, human rights and the sea), with the joint aim of helping to inform stakeholders and governments on what transformative ocean governance entails and what can be achieved through it. 

It requires considerable consultation, including talking to industry, government, lawyers, biologists, small-scale fishers, ocean-dwelling communities and holders of Indigenous knowledge. It also requires investigating the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process used by industries such as oil and gas and marine minerals. 

The EIA process that gets approved is often wholly insufficient. Exploration goes ahead in most cases, with some exceptions where multinationals are taken to court such as the contesting of seismic blasting along the Wild Coast in the search for oil and gas. 

Industry has the power and money, and characteristically uses economics and job creation in their bid for a large slice of the ocean. It’s very difficult pushing back against big industry and governments or any sector that gains the most benefit from the ocean but we have to reach a point of collaboration. We are hoping the ocean governance policies and MSPs will assist in putting pressure on industry and governments to work with other sectors and collaboratively come up with win-win solutions for ocean sustainability.

Many developing nations are working on their MSPs now and they regularly contact us for help. One of our teams is working with Madagascar; we work a lot with Western Indian Ocean countries — from South Africa all the way up the east coast of Africa.

We are well into the UN Ocean Decade and the 2030 drive to protect the oceans, which cannot be a box-ticking exercise. We have to move beyond the “blue team” wanting to conserve the oceans and industry hitting back that they don’t like what we are presenting. It’s a constant fight instead of working as one team. The ocean environment is screaming for collaboration and hopefully this can be achieved.

Professor Amanda Lombard holds the SARChI Chair in Marine Spatial Planning at Nelson Mandela University and is lead author of a seminal article ‘Principles for transformative ocean governance’, published on 7 September in the leading international journal, Nature Sustainability.

Published in Mail&Guardian 18 September 2023

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