Change the world


Arthur C. Clarke once aptly reflected on “how inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean”. The ocean mass covers about 71% of our planet’s surface and comprises 97% of its water mass. It plays a crucial role in earth’s climate system – regulating its average temperatures and storing over two-thirds of earth’s active carbon dioxide.

Our oceans are indispensable to human life. Yet it is an irony that many aspects of the world’s oceans are understood in superficial and fragmented ways - despite great scientific progress over the past century. It is often remarked that we know more about the surface of the moon than the oceans on earth.

Barely 5% of the ocean mass has been explored, and the vast majority of the seabed still has to be mapped. Only a small fraction of all its estimated life forms - from large creatures to millions of microbes - have so far been discovered and classified.

We are also only beginning to understand its complex, dynamic marine ecosystems, and a great deal more work is required to develop fine-scaled, time-sensitive modelling of how human activities impact on specific ocean regions - crucial for marine spatial planning and ocean protection strategies. And the Southern (Antarctica) and Indian Oceans are least explored compared to what we know about the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Perhaps apart from the interior of the earth, our oceans remain to be the last great unknown to earth science.

What we do know is that water is key to DNA-based life forms. And there is mounting evidence suggesting that the earliest life forms may have started in Earth’s primordial oceans (for example hydrothermal vents) some 3.8 billion years ago.

We certainly know from written records and oral traditions (songs, folklore) that human life, from the dawn of time, has had a long connection to the sea - from Stone Age hunter-gathers who survived in caves along the Southern African coastline some 200,000 years ago; the first Africans who left our continent some 70,000 years ago, and radiated across different parts of the world, in the process taking the world’s first African explorers to new lands; to the sea-faring Phoenicians who first sailed the Mediterranean, and Polynesians who discovered Australasia; the ancient Chinese and Nordic mariners of 11th centuries; 16th and 17th century explorers and conquistadors who colonised different parts of the world; to the modern age, when a new era of seafaring emerged on the back of the industrial revolution and rise of global capitalism.

Today, the sea is a vital part of human economic and cultural life. In the modern era, particularly after the Second World War (1939-45), sea-based trade and economic activity had seen exponential growth, employing millions, generating huge revenues, and bringing consumer goods within reach of nearly all the earth’s populations.

The global financial crisis of 2007/08 saw a marked decline in growth of the global ocean economy. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest by states and investors in the ocean economy as a source of global economic stimulus.

Traditional sea-based industries were largely based on wild fishing, shipbuilding and shipping, port development, near-shore oil and gas, and logistics. In recent years, a new generation of ocean economy sectors has begun to emerge on the back of the old - marine robotics, ship automation, deep-sea oil, gas, tidal, wind and wave and energy, marine biotechnology and seabed mining.

The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) estimates growth in value of the ocean economy from USD 1 trillion in 2012 to over USD  3 trillion by 2030, with highest growth forecast in maritime cruising and tourism (26%), followed by oil and gas (21%), and port expansion (16%).

At the same time, there has also been a dramatic population expansion of the world’s coastal cities and regions (over 1.4 billion people in 2012) and with this, new pressures on, and risks to, the coastal and marine environments – growing levels of industrial and civil pollution of chemicals, waste, and plastics affecting the underlying health of our oceans.

What makes this period distinctive is that the new drive for growth in the global ocean economy is taking place at a time of major changes in the earth’s climate system (itself the result, at least in part, of previous industrial activity) - higher levels of CO2 released into the atmosphere warming up our oceans, melting of the polar regions, sea level rises, and increasing levels of ocean acidification.

Together, these pressures have been affecting different parts of the world’s marine ecosystems – reduction of wild fish stocks; bleaching of coral reefs in large parts of the world; changes in developmental and reproduction rates of many types of marine species; and accelerated environmental changes outpacing the adaptive resilience of marine ecosystems.

Today, the biggest challenge of our generation, arguably, is that of sustainability. To balance human development – as expressed in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – with planetary sustainability will require major transformations: in the ethics and patterns of human consumption; our understanding of natural systems; our respect for biodiversity and ocean health; and importance of evidence-based policy-making and decision-making systems.

If South Africa’s policy goal – as expressed in Operation Phakisa Ocean Economy – is to grow GDP value to R177bn and create a million jobs by 2033 by stimulating economic activity in our oceans and coasts, such goals, I would argue, must be moderated by a deeper understanding of how best to manage the difficult challenges of sustainability; and this in turn requires better investment in basic and applied science and technology to build better understanding of our marine ecosystems and investment in growing new careers and skills, especially in areas previously neglected or narrowly developed – for example marine spatial planning, deep-sea oceanography, climate modeling, bioacoustics and long-range studies of the Indian and Southern Ocean systems.

Moreover, there is a real need to grow the contribution of social sciences and humanities in promoting sustainable ocean development.

Firstly, if human adaptation is a prerequisite to ecological sustainability, then we require more effective tools to promote ecological citizenship. Secondly, if Operation Phakisa Ocean Economy is to avoid reproducing the same patterns of inequality we see, for example, in the mining and financial sectors, then we must find more effective models of economic ownership, participation and inclusion – particularly focused on marginalised and poor communities.

Nelson Mandela University is committed to a research and training agenda that brings questions of social justice and equity into focus. We also hope to contribute to recording “hidden maritime histories” - the stories and heritage of coastal and island peoples in Africa and western Indian Ocean islands.

Our goal is to develop Nelson Mandela University into a globally recognised, cutting-edge, innovative and pioneering “laboratory” for generating original and applied knowledge to deepen our understanding of ocean dynamics – its geophysics, chemistry, biology, climate system, economic, social and cultural value, its history and future in a world under twin pressures of human activity and climate change.

Towards this end, the university has adopted a bold new Ocean Sciences strategy to drive a new research, training and innovation agenda to help finding better tools for managing the twin challenges of human development and ecological sustainability.

In this context, we have begun to expand academic offerings in fields such as oceanography, marine engineering, maritime economics and logistics, marine tourism, port development and management, marine spatial planning and the law of the sea, including fisheries law enforcement.

In the next few years, we hope to recruit a new generation of smart students, academic staff and researchers to get top-class training in critical fields.

Secondly, the university has recently begun with the establishment of a new and dedicated Ocean Sciences Campus in Nelson Mandela Bay, to focus and grow our capabilities in a selected number of areas. We have already invested R60m in the new campus, and will be investing a further R75m over the next three years in new infrastructure, labs, equipment and staff to facilitate this new growth area.

Nelson Mandela University currently holds four NRF-funded SARChI (South African Research Chairs Initiative) Chairs in Marine Spatial Planning; Ocean Science and Marine Food Security, Shallow Water Ecosystems; and Law of the Sea and Development in Africa.

In 2016, we launched three new research and training entities - Centre for Marine and Coastal Research (CMR), the FishFORCE Academy, focused on fisheries protection (with a R50m Norwegian government grant), and Centre for Coastal Paleoscience doing discovery research on early human origins along the southern coastlines of South Africa.

In 2015, the university also established the South African International Maritime Institute  (SAIMI), focusing on maritime policy and training, with a R265m grant from the National Skills Fund.

Since last year, we have also begun to position all our seven faculties (Science; Engineering, the Built Environment and IT, Arts, Education, Law, Health Sciences and Business and Economic Sciences) to align current programmes and create new programmes at undergraduate and post-graduate levels around key niche ocean sciences areas. Nelson Mandela University has over 40 years of scientific expertise in coastal and marine sciences that we hope to build on into new directions into the future.

The institution is the only South African university bearing a “comprehensive” knowledge and skills profile with a prime location right at the coast. This profile brings together basic, formative and applied, professional knowledge competencies in Ocean Sciences in novel ways.

This is a huge strategic advantage in that we can bring to bear to do both discovery research (exploring our oceans) and simultaneously also help to solve real world problems arising from the imperatives of human development needs and ecological sustainability.

I am excited about the prospects of Nelson Mandela University becoming the leading Ocean Sciences University on the African continent. We are hugely encouraged by our growing portfolio of international partnerships in ocean sciences, including Universities of Southampton and Plymouth (UK), Agder and NTNU (Norway), Alto (Finland) and Nairobi (Kenya) and Zanzibar.

If the twin goals of modern science are to explain the world and solve real life problems, we believe that the university’s Ocean Sciences future opens up a new horizon of exciting opportunities for students, scholars and other stakeholders of “blue commons” to join hands with us in this bold new journey, which is certainly one of the most exciting developments in the history of the university.

This article is by Professor Derrick Swartz, the former vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela University who had been the driving force behind its bold new Ocean Sciences Strategy since around 2014. This strategy arose from his passionate belief that the university enjoys a number of competitive advantages - such as its geographical location on the eastern seaboard, in a major port city (Port Elizabeth) with two major ports, over 40 years of ocean sciences expertise - enabling it to become the leading Ocean Sciences university on the African continent. Here, Prof Swartz details his vision and strategy in this regard.

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