At any given time, an average of 90% of the oceans around South Africa (the exclusive economic zone) are under lease for oil and gas exploration or extraction. Promoting additional extraction of oil and gas is highly questionable. Furthermore, applications for exploratory and extractive drilling rights by oil and gas giants are being approved by the government yet they are objected to by coastal communities, NGOs and fishers. Applications to explore and extract oil and gas are subjected to an environmental impact assessment, but these often grossly under-represent the likely negative environmental impacts, don’t assess climate risk, and are funded by industry applicants. Appeals against decisions to approve drilling and exploration have been compromised by the lack of a realistic oil spill model to evaluate risks and impacts. WILDTRUST has developed a model to predict the nature, behaviour and trajectory of oil spilled from offshore oil and gas extraction. This provides realistic scenarios for future assessment of environmental, social and economic risks of major blowouts and routine spills from drilling sites in the ocean. Should a blowout or spill occur, damage to these areas would severely compromise biodiversity, fisheries and tourism. The WILDTRUST oil spill model provides an objective and scientifically defensible reference for the assessment of risks when decisions are made, and for future oil spill modelling studies in the region. The model will also help generate awareness among, and disseminate information to decision-makers, the public, and affected stakeholders about the risks associated with an oil spill from offshore exploration and extraction.
What’s been your/the organisation’s greatest achievement in your field?
One of the WILDTRUST’s biggest achievements has been establishing a thriving WildOceans programme that restores marine and coastal biodiversity while building resilience for coastal communities. The work of this programme has exploded in South Africa with positive results having a domino effect across the Western Indian Ocean and coastal communities. One of the organisation’s biggest achievements has been spreading awareness about the vulnerability of sharks and rays (reaching about 40 million people in the past year) and shifting negative perceptions about the species.
Please provide specific examples of how your/your organisation’s practices and work have a positive effect on the environment
If people know better, they do better. All of our projects have educational, capacity building and awareness elements to them and therefore see people from all walks of life learning about our land and sea (specific to South Africa and Comoros). Building on our strategic vision, WILDTRUST sees its role as an advocate for the environment – conserving, protecting and patrolling more than 51 000 hectares and collecting over 52 000kg of recycling waste, as well as participating in global campaigns — for the conservation of biodiversity and an end to unwarranted destruction of wildlife and wild places. Our work also empowers people with skills, training and community-based resource hubs that give people access to technology, the internet and a library. These hubs also create job opportunities, especially for the youth. The Ocean Stewards project has also been groundbreaking in giving hundreds of marine science students an experiential journey exploring the ocean with experienced marine scientists on board our research vessel, the Angra Pequena. This offers them first-hand opportunities to experience the ocean and the science involved in making decisions on how our ocean is governed. Given that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow, this work is significant and effective.
What are some of the biggest environmental challenges faced by South Africans today?
One of the biggest problems we face is linked to the multiple users (and abusers) of our ocean space around South Africa. At any given time 90% of it is leased to oil and gas (also conducting seismic surveys that harm marine life). Only 5.4% is formally protected in Marine Protected Areas and global science and research tells us that we need at least 30% of our ocean protected by the year 2030. We keep taking so much from the ocean but don’t give back. Overfishing is becoming a major threat to the collapse of our ocean ecosystem — we need to do more for our ocean.
Our theme this year is Celebrating Environment Heroes. What do you believe could be the repercussions for millions of people in South Africa and the continent if we do not tackle problems exacerbated by climate change, encompassing issues like drought, floods, fires, extreme heat, biodiversity loss, and pollution of air and water?
We take our oceans for granted. They are overfished, full of our trash, exploited, packed full of noisy vessels, explored with seismic blasts, drilled and reefs destroyed. At most, we have 10 years to stay below the 1.5°C heating threshold to avoid the existential threats to nature and people that crossing it will bring.
The need to protect this life-giving natural resource is urgent. Coral reef die-offs, collapsing fish populations and species extinctions are evidence of the escalating ocean crisis brought about by overfishing, ocean heating, acidification, pollution and multiple other stressors. But the situation is far from hopeless, although the time to act for our oceans is now and even a simple action, such as refusing single-use plastics, makes a difference. A shift from 5% to 10% and maybe even 30% of South Africa’s waters being protected will also see massive benefits for our country.
According to the 2014 State of the Ocean and Coasts Report, the direct value of the marine ecotourism sector to the South African economy was R400 million and its indirect value was more than R2 billion. The combined economic benefits from coastal resources are estimated to be about 35% of South Africa’s annual GDP.
Protecting the oceans and the complex web of life that lies below the surface is being recognised as a fundamental human right. In fact, research shows that every second breath we take comes from the ocean. Defending the ocean’s capacity to produce oxygen, sequester carbon and provide food and livelihoods for billions of people is vital. It is important to note that economic recovery is compatible with environmental protection.