Era of marine spatial planning

Humpback whale breaching. (Photo: Dr Stephanie Plön, Ocean Health Unit, Earth Stewardship Science Research, Nelson Mandela University)

Humpback whale breaching. (Photo: Dr Stephanie Plön, Ocean Health Unit, Earth Stewardship Science Research, Nelson Mandela University)

South Africa has more ocean territory than land, and more than 40% of South Africans live on or near a coastline. In 2014, the government launched Operation Phakisa: Oceans Economy, to unlock the economic potential of the oceans, based on the principles of sustainable development. One of the key tools available to promote sustainable practices in the ocean is marine spatial planning.

Professor Mandy Lombard, who holds the DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Marine Spatial Planning at Nelson Mandela University, explained: “Marine spatial planning brings together the research, data and everyone with an interest in the oceans — government, fisheries, shipping, energy, tourism, conservation and recreation — to make co-ordinated, evidence-based decisions about how to sustainably use resources and manage our oceans. Optimising economic opportunities has to be done without compromising the environment. This is non-negotiable, because the ecosystem services the oceans deliver are essential for our survival.”

These services include provisioning (such as food and water production), regulating (such as climate regulating through CO2 and heat absorption), supporting (such as oxygen production), and cultural (such as recreational or spiritual activities). Despite a clear understanding of this dependency, humans continue to impact marine systems in potentially irreversible ways.

“Unfortunately, South Africa’s national policies tend to be fragmented and sector-specific and include decision-support tools that address only components of marine systems,” says Lombard. “These tools are all represented in South Africa’s legislative toolbox, the most recent addition being the draft Marine Spatial Planning Bill, and our 20 new marine protected areas. The big move required is towards integrated ocean management at local and regional levels, based on matching policy and management strategies at a national level in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles out to the sea (just under 400km), as well as in the high seas (areas beyond national jurisdiction).”

Lombard explained their research projects include researchers from the physical, social and economic sciences, and law. “We work with academics, government scientists, managers and communities. We work across habitats (from deep water corals, through marine canyons, to shallower reefs and estuaries), oceans (Indian, Atlantic, Southern) and countries (from Angola to Western Indian Ocean Islands). Using a Systems Thinking approach, we build spatial and temporal models, and are working out how best to couple them with policy and decision-making.”