Sea blindness and quick fixes destroy oceans

Oceans and seas cover 72% of the Earth’s surface, carry 95% of its biosphere and 80% of global trade. They are the support base for all life. Yet countries suffer from “sea blindness”, a maritime term for ignoring the critical importance of the water around us.

South Africa is no different. Its 10th province covers a greater area than the whole country, and the navy says there are only 14 vessels to patrol it.

This is more capacity than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. But it is little in a century in which big maritime countries are starting to focus on securing their seas. China is reducing its army by 30 000 soldiers so that it can boost its navy by 30 000 sailors. At any time, that country has up to 300 vessels at sea to monitor its nearly 15 000km of coastline.

Africa has 26 000km of coastline and no accurate numbers for the vessels available to protect each country’s ocean, which extends 370km from shore.

That this has to change was central to a discussion held on Thursday, on World Oceans Day, at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

Rear Admiral Rusty Higgs, the chief of naval staff for the South African Navy, said: “The 21st century is the naval century.” This means countries must sustainably manage their ocean environments and ensure no one else destroys them.

In Africa, this collective effort started a decade ago in Abuja, Nigeria, when the continent’s navies met and pushed for the blue economy to be enshrined in the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Despite this, Higgs said, the ocean economy keeps falling off the table, in favour of national interests on land. “Our biggest threat is sea blindness. That’s a strategic error. You need a crisis to get people back to the sea.”

That crisis occurred in South Africa last month, when naval and fishery department vessels struggled with operational and jurisdictional issues when trying to arrest Chinese-flagged vessels operating in local water.

Captain Andre Katerinic, the navy’s warfare director, said: “We have contradictions that we have to overcome. Navies are focused on war fighting, which is constitutionally mandated. But, on the other side, you have an increasing need for law enforcement.”

For South Africa, this means the navy has to help monitor the 400 vessels in local waters each day, he said. “We are giving assistance to other departments at the drop of a hat.” A coastguard would play this role, but most countries cannot afford both a navy and a coastguard.

Katerinic said the navy is training a maritime reaction squad, which will give it the ability to arrest vessels suspected of illegal fishing.

But there are still problems, he said. The arrest of Chinese-flagged vessels last month showed the gap between the “high-fidelity legal requirements” of policing the ocean, and the “low-fidelity implementation” that can be done, he said. “Those trawlers will probably get a slap on the hand and go away.”

Adnan Awad, the director of the International Ocean Institute – Southern Africa, said the government initiative Operation Phakisa had started to fix these sorts of problems. But it has to navigate the tricky line between economic growth and keeping the oceans healthy, he said.

“We already have 87% of global fish stocks fully or overexploited.” That is often because of illegal and unregulated fishing and results in African communities facing hunger and economic ruin. This is the moment where African countries have to take control of their oceans, for the benefit of their own people.”

Several cross-border conventions are doing this to good effect, he said. The Benguela Current Convention, covering Angola, Namibia and South Africa, means a growing ocean economy for all its member states, and constant investment in aquaculture and offshore oil.

Operation Phakisa is allowing the country to harness its often ignored ocean for economic gain, he said. “There is a long history of good science here and Phakisa is jumping on this and ensuring real progress.”

But this could unravel if countries do not look after their oceans, he warned. “Philosophically, we’re going down the same path that we went down on land.”

This means inadequate protection of the environment, with scant naval resources, and a focus on short-term gain from activities such as undersea phosphate mining. “We are taking desperate political and economic times and hoping the oceans will solve these in the short term, instead of thinking of the long-term benefits.”

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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