In this edition of Africa Insights our research partners at Stellenbosch University's Centre for Complex Systems in Transition consider the vast expanse of the ocean and ways of protecting a resource so essential for the planet's wellbeing.

The ocean is under siege. Protecting it is arguably one of the most fluid and complex challenges to address because the ocean is neither state owned nor a private commodity but a shared resource that calls for a global response.

The researchers say this necessitates a form of ocean governance that goes beyond traditional state and private sector roles. They make the case for 'polycentric governance' in which multiple governing bodies interact to make and enforce rules within specific policy areas or locations.

They propose the establishment of a new, supra-national 'Ocean Agency' to inform national policies and corporate activities and manage the diverse views and ideas of many stakeholders, including civil society. They make the point that it will also be important to support the current UN ocean processes around the ratification of the new UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) agreement.

On the positive side, the research shows that when pressures build up and existing institutions do not have the capacity to respond appropriately, 'niche innovations' tend to open up and offer alternatives – much as renewable energy is challenging incumbent energy technologies.

With so much at stake for the continent, where millions of people depend on the health of the seas, it is vital for Africa to be part of the global efforts to chart a pathway towards ocean sustainability.

Fortunately, the continent is relatively well represented in global discussions on sustainable ocean economies and a number of countries are included on the Ocean Panel. It is also pleasing to see that some niche innovations have occurred on the continent.

Ocean governance is vast and complex, and while there is ample room for deeper debate, this report serves as a good starting point.

Humanity's relationship with the ocean

Life on earth depends to a large degree on the health of the ocean, which makes up 70% of the planet's surface.

Our land-based lives are profoundly connected to the sustainability of the ocean.

The ocean, which provides these critical natural resources and services to humankind, is under stress.

In a business-as-usual scenario, where the rate of emissions remains unchecked and global temperatures continue to rise, a series of radical collapses is likely and not a gradual slope of decline across species and ecosystems. This prediction was made by climate scientists Trisos, Merow and Pigot in a 2020 research paper. The ocean is projected to be the first ecosystem to experience this devastation, having already warmed to unprecedented levels.


2019: Warmest years in recorded human history for the world's oceans
Source: Cheng, L., J. Abraham, J. Zhu, K.E. Trenberth, J. Fasullo, T. Boyer, R. Locarnini et al. 2020


Global and regional pressures on the ocean include rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions and resultant changes in chemistry which, in turn, impact species and food webs throughout its ecosystems. Deoxygenation, overfishing and pollution run-off from land and coastal sources are also of concern.

Open ocean diversity has declined by up to 50% in the past 50 years, and the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 30% of the world's assessed fisheries have already been pushed beyond ecological limits. A 2006 study by scientist Boris Worm and a team of economists, predicted fishless oceans by 2048 if nothing changes and urgent action is not taken.

Transformative change in ocean governance is required to ensure the ocean ecosystem continues to support the web of life. Humanity must forge a new relationship with the ocean to secure the diversity of ocean life and the services it provides.

This report applies transition theory to ocean governance. It explains how ecological stressors give rise to innovations across economic sectors and stakeholder communities. It outlines ways that these innovations can be taken up to support transitions to greater sustainability, thereby enabling a thriving and vibrant relationship between humans and the ocean.

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