/ 29 September 2023

World Maritime Day

Vessels surveyors of the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) boating unit, with members of the South African Police Services (SAPS) during a Concentrated Inspection Campaign for boating safety over the last few months, as part of the implementation of the South African Inland Waterways Strategy. It is also guided by the Merchant Shipping (National Small Vessel Safety) Regulations of 2007.

Celebrating vast ocean resources

World Maritime Day, observed annually in September, marks the chance to celebrate the importance of the maritime industry, both in South Africa and globally. The International Maritime Organisation has declared the 2023 theme “MARPOL at 50 – Our commitment goes on” to reflect the IMO’s long history of protecting the marine environment from shipping impacts through the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). This day also stands as a reminder that despite strides made, there is still a long way to go to ensure the protection and promotion of an inclusive and sustainable ocean economy. 

For South Africa, World Maritime Day presents an opportunity to reflect on the significance of its vast ocean resources and the role of the maritime sector in supporting the economy. 

With around 3000 km of coastline, stretching from the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the temperate Indian Ocean, this vast resource is not just a geographic blessing, but a potential treasure trove of economic growth and environmental stewardship. 

According to the Convention on Biodiversity, South Africa has more ocean territory than land, with jurisdiction over one of the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world. Its waters harbour around 15% of the world’s marine species,  demonstrating the extent of the sea’s biodiversity and economic potential. 

These coasts and their surrounding ocean spaces contain rich deposits of oil, gas, diamonds and other minerals that have powered the country’s industries for decades.

With such a vast EEZ and coastline with its impressive biodiversity, it is not surprising that South Africa’s ocean is a significant cultural, environmental and economic asset – both for today and for tomorrow.  The country’s expansive maritime zone holds the key to what is increasingly referred to as the ‘blue economy’ — a concept that encapsulates the sustainable use of oceanic resources for economic development, improved livelihoods and ecological preservation.

South African ports like Durban, Cape Town, and Richards Bay serve as critical gateways to world markets.  Around 80% of South Africa’s exports and imports are transported by sea. These gateways serve not only as pivotal nodes in the country’s domestic logistics but also as vital hubs in the global supply chain. By investing in port infrastructure and operations, South Africa can boost the competitive advantage of its exports like iron ore, coal, citrus fruits, and automobiles.

Beyond exports and minerals, the ocean offers other economic opportunities if managed sustainably. South Africa has a growing ocean economy consisting of marine transport, tourism, fisheries, aquaculture, and marine manufacturing.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), South Africa’s coastal goods and services alone are estimated to contribute over a third (35%) to the GDP. In terms of fisheries alone, historically harvests around 600 000 tonnes of fish each year, providing livelihoods to over 127 000 people and providing food security to millions more. 

With emerging sectors like offshore renewable energy, marine bioprospecting, and marine protection services, the country’s so-called “Blue Economy” has a bright future, with the potential to create employment for more than one million people over the next decade. 

Realising these benefits, however, requires responsible stewardship of marine resources. South Africa faces challenges like illegal fishing, pollution from ships and land-based activities, oil spills, and climate change impacts like warming oceans. On World Maritime Day, it is critical to reaffirm commitments to cleaner shipping practices, reduced emissions, effective waste management, and ecosystem restoration. MARPOL’s ongoing progress shows what coordinated international efforts can achieve.

The South African government has taken some positive steps, such as announcing Operation Phakisa in 2014 – an initiative to unlock the economic potential of our oceans. South Africa has also designated 23 new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) covering 5.4% of exclusive economic zone waters. MPAs can restore fish stocks and protect biodiversity when managed properly.  

As the world grapples with the realities of climate change, the imperative for sustainable practices within the maritime sector has never been clearer. South Africa’s marine ecosystem, renowned for its rich biodiversity, demands vigilant guardianship. 

It is more important than ever before to acknowledge the critical role of education and innovation in shaping South Africa’s maritime future. In doing so, the nation can cultivate a skilled workforce that is equipped to navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. 

From fisherfolk in Kalk Bay to rig workers in Mossel Bay to tour operators in Cape Town, livelihoods depend on the sea. Sustainably developing the “Blue Economy” can create jobs, support communities, and ensure future generations also benefit from marine resources. This World Maritime Day and beyond, all South Africans should reflect on how to chart the best course for the future of the ocean and its critical role in the country’s economic recovery. 

World Maritime Day celebrated in North West province

The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), under the Department of Transport (DoT), joined this year’s global maritime sector celebration of the World Maritime Day (WMD) on Thursday 28 September 2023 in recognising its milestone — 25 years of existence as the country’s leading state-owned entity championing the country’s development of its ocean’s economy.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO)’s theme for this year’s WMD is: “MARPOL at 50 — Our commitment goes on”, and aims to keep the spotlight on the importance of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) with regards global prevention of pollution of the marine environment by ships, from operational or accidental causes. 

Essentially, it is both a reflection of the IMO’s long history of promoting the protection of the ocean’s environment from the impact of shipping via a robust regulatory framework, while emphasising its ongoing commitment to this important work, as well as serving as a reminder to maritime countries of their ongoing responsibility to keep their focus on the task.

Says the IMO: “‘MARPOL at 50 – Our commitment goes on’ promotes discussions on the next phase of IMO’s work to further protect the planet and the oceans, is also linked to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These include affordable and clean energy (SDG 7); industry, innovation, and infrastructure (SDG 9); climate action and sustainable use of the oceans, seas, and marine resources (SDGs 13 and 14); and the importance of partnerships and implementation to achieve these goals (SDG 17).”

In South Africa, the WMD celebration event notably takes place in an inland province 400km away from the nearest coastline, at Hartebeespoort Dam in North West province — the third inland province to host the event in recent years.

The significance thereof for this year’s event, according to the DoT, is to promote nationwide public awareness about the singular importance of marine and maritime pollution prevention, and combating it even in inland waterways, where pleasure and entertainment in related small vessels take place throughout the year, on the many large and small dams and on the country’s network of rivers.

The approach, cognisant of Chapter 14 of the IMO’s Model of Safety Regulations for Inland Waterways Vessels and Non-Conventional Craft, including Fishing Vessels operating in Africa (2002), seeks to step-up for expansion the implementation of South Africa’s Inland Waterways Strategy launched at the Vaal Dam in 2019.

Meanwhile, SAMSA, founded under the South African Maritime Safety Authority Act (Act 5 of 1998) on 1 April 1998, in celebrating its own 25 years of existence this year, takes a particular positive interest in the DoT’s approach to marking WMD 2023, because the entity is primarily responsible for ensuring that South Africa is fully compliant with requirements of the Marpol Convention through implementation of relevant laws and regulations — and has done well so far in this regard. 

Secondly, in terms of its expanded mandate, SAMSA is also entrusted with responsible implementation of the Merchant Shipping (National Small Vessel Safety) Regulations 2007, whose main aim is the promotion of boating safety that encompasses, broadly, the prevention and combating of pollution of maritime and marine environments by vessels.

Since launch of the country’s Inland Waterways Strategy in 2019, SAMSA’s boating unit, working in collaboration with various stakeholders including the South African Police Services (SAPS), the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation (DWAS), the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE), the South African Defence Force (SADF) local and provincial governments, and boating and related  associations, has taken tremendous strides in ensuring the acceleration of the implementation of the strategy through both enforcement of regulations as well as promotion of safe practices in boating activities.

Key elements of the strategy implementation include concentrated inspection campaigns, small vessels’ surveyors training workshops, as well as periodic boating community engagements wherein vital boating safety information is exchanged.

The latter element, essentially involving public awareness, is being highlighted during this year’s celebration of the WMD at Hartebeespoort Dam, through activity involving the boating community and schoolchildren. This is all consistent with SAMSA’s mandate: to promote the safety of people and property at sea, prevention and combating pollution by ships and promoting the country’s maritime interests.

Breaking barriers and making waves

The people participating in the ocean economy should be as diverse as the varied marine life found below the waves. This, says ocean explorer Zandile Ndhlovu, is why she founded the Black Mermaid Foundation and works tirelessly to reconnect black youth to the sea. “Doing this is one way to reach our end goal,” she explains, “[which is] to create a more diverse ocean — in terms of careers, sports and recreation, while actively creating future guardians of our seas.” 

Zandile Ndhlovu, founder of the Black Mermaid Foundation, works tirelessly to reconnect black youth to the sea. (Photo: Craig Kolesky)

Ndhlovu’s love affair with the ocean began unexpectedly on the tropical shores of Bali in 2016. Though she hails from Soweto in landlocked Gauteng, that first snorkelling experience while abroad sparked a passion for the underwater world. “I was mind blown,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to explore this world more.”

Back home in South Africa, Ndhlovu took up scuba diving and received her certification. In 2018 she discovered freediving — diving without scuba gear — and was instantly hooked. “Freediving brought me closer to the ocean and marine life,” Ndhlovu explains. “It’s incredibly peaceful, but also brings you closer to the self, along with having closer encounters with marine life. It is honestly the most beautiful world and practice.”

Reconnecting black South Africans to the ocean

Ndhlovu says the fact that the ocean space is racialised is not a secret: “When I started diving there were so many challenges around race, but also around identity and assimilation — from suits that were not built for a form like mine to the policing of hair — I knew I needed to bring change. The ocean should be a place that enables everyone to feel as welcome as we are.” 

She says that historically, black South Africans had a severed cultural connection to the ocean dating back to apartheid. “We were displaced from ocean areas and beaches during apartheid. This changed people’s culture around water, and whatever relationship existed ceased to exist in a healthy manner,” she explains. “From this intergenerational fear and warnings that steer people away from the water — stories about drowning and water snakes and the ocean being an ancestral place — we face continuous messaging, warning us to stay away from all bodies of water.”  

Zandile Ndhlovu fell in love with the ocean after her first snorkelling experience. (Photo: Samatha Hunter)

Her mind shift was an empowering one: “We had been holding on to an incomplete narrative. We need to bridge this gap to make the oceans accessible and create a connection that reminds us that the ocean isn’t just a white-people space; it belongs to us all.” 

Today, as South Africa’s first PADI-certified black female freedive instructor, Ndhlovu is sharing her love for the sea  — especially with young people who may feel excluded or unwelcome in ocean sports. “I just knew this is where I was meant to be; this was where I wanted to teach others and help and inspire people to feel the beauty of being underwater,” she says. 

A lack of resources, swimming skills, and accessibility continues to hinder black communities from connecting to the sea. Ndhlovu aims to break this cycle with her nonprofit Black Mermaid Foundation, providing ocean access, education and snorkelling excursions to youth from townships in Cape Town. “Kids learn about the marine life we encounter at sea, and the challenges that the ocean faces, then we go exploring,” she describes. “It’s incredible to see kids move from a place of fear to curiosity. It’s a beautiful experience when you can’t get them out of the water!”

Building an inclusive ocean economy 

Diversity and inclusion in ocean sports, research and industries remain dismally low in South Africa. Ndhlovu stresses that greater representation is vital for conservation. “If we have any intention to save our oceans, we need all hands on deck, we need all voices, we need everyone rallying for change.

“Educating about the wonders of the ocean is incredible but creating ownership, authority and invested stakeholders from both ocean-facing and land-locked communities changes how the ocean is viewed and what we allow with regard to her exploitation,” she explains. “When we are connected, we care; when we care, we use our voices to demand change.” 

This is critical, especially as South Africa faces increasing natural and climate-related disasters: “Climate change is real, flooding, droughts, food security and land displacements mean that the most vulnerable communities stand to see the worst effects of climate change. If we are not aware of what is happening nationally and globally around our oceans, we, particularly as black and brown people, stand to lose our homes, again and again.”

Greater diversity and inclusion in ocean industries also present tremendous opportunities for historically excluded groups. “Once we move from survival, we actively begin to create change in the most meaningful ways, not only in our own communities, but globally,” says Ndhlovu.

Envisioning the future

The Black Mermaid Foundation has a bold vision for the future — one where ocean industries celebrate the diversity and inclusion of all people in the same way that marine biodiversity is celebrated. 

A starting point is making swimming and water safety basic skills for all children nationally. “This makes the ocean space less daunting and actively tackles the drowning problem we have in South Africa,” Ndhlovu explains.

She encourages young people not to let fear hold them back from pursuing their dreams.

For those interested in ocean careers, Ndhlovu’s advice is simple: “Go for it! It’s okay to be afraid, and it’s okay to feel uncertainty around something new, but there’s always gold to be found on the other side of fear so if it’s what you want, then do it!”

Businesses, governments and organisations can facilitate opportunities for ocean access, education and skills development, critically examining barriers to inclusion and being intentional about dismantling the obstacles that prevent access. To do this, there need to exist platforms for diverse voices and participation in policymaking.    

Ndhlovu says public participation is key for change: “When people speak, government listens, business listens. We actively need to use our voices if we have any intention of creating any kind of change in our country.”

She also calls for ocean education and opportunities across communities. “We should actively work to create access through various mechanisms, from snorkel excursions, ocean programmes and community participation in ocean-related events, to introducing marine science at a school level.” 

By expanding the narrative and removing barriers to access, it is possible to create a more diverse, inclusive and sustainable future for South Africa’s ocean economy. “As we create ocean champions in all communities, we slowly expand the narrative and realise the power of our collective humanity when we work together,” she says.  

Storytelling, she says, is a powerful way to create change: “I wrote, directed and helped produce my first film called The Black Mermaid for WaterBear, an international free streaming platform that focuses on impact films. I also released a children’s book called Zandi’s Song available in Zulu, Sotho, English, Xhosa and Afrikaans, highlighting the importance of tradition and what ocean conservation means.”

She says it is up to every person to contribute towards an inclusive ocean economy, calling on communities to revive storytelling and cultural histories connected to the ocean: “We must remember where we come from as a people. We have always lived with nature — from our forests to our mountains to our seas — and in this remembering we must realise that conservation is not white. It belongs to us all. Storytelling and education allow us to envision a different future. — Jamaine Krige

Oil spills could decimate SA’s oceans, model shows

With the spotlight on the importance of fostering sustainable ocean industries, a new oil spill model developed for South Africa’s waters highlights the catastrophic risks of offshore oil and gas extraction. The model, spearheaded by conservation non-profit WILDTRUST, simulates potential oil spills from drilling sites off South Africa’s coasts, where 90% of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is already leased for exploration and extraction. The results paint a bleak picture of the severe environmental and economic impacts a spill could have, revealing the perils of offshore oil in an interconnected ocean ecosystem. 

“A major oil spill in our waters is a real possibility that we must consider, and this model provides realistic scenarios to assess the risks of routine spills and major blowouts as more of South Africa’s ocean space is made available for drilling,” explains Dr Jean Harris, who is the Strategic Lead of the WILDOCEANS programme at WILDTRUST.

According to the project’s ocean modeller, Dr Giles Fearon, the greatest potential ecological risk posed by offshore oil and gas exploration is due to a blowout spill: “This can occur if there is a break in the riser pipe from the well on the seabed. The most well-known example of this type of spill is the Deepwater Horizon Spill, which occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and led to enormous ecological impact.” 

The incident in question saw approximately four million barrels pour into the ocean over the course of 87 days, making it the largest accidental marine oil spill in history. According to WILDTRUST, with so much of South Africa’s ocean space being made available for oil and gas exploration or extraction, the question should not be whether disaster will strike, but rather when. 

According to Harris, “applications to explore and extract oil and gas are subjected to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, but this often grossly under-represents the likely negative environmental impacts, does not assess climate risk and is funded by industry applicants.”

The new model aims to predict the nature, behaviour and trajectory of oil spills from offshore oil and gas extraction sites and aims to equip stakeholders with realistic scenarios to aid in future assessment of the environmental, social and economic risks of major blow-outs and routine spills from drilling sites being pursued in South Africa’s oceans.

How does this work? 

Fearon explains: “At the heart of the oil spill model is an ocean model —  a computer programme which solves a set of mathematical equations to predict how ocean currents change over time. Oil released into the model is transported by the prevailing ocean currents. Most of the oil reaches the surface, where it is additionally transported by the surface winds, while the properties of the oil change in response to the environment.” 

The primary model outputs are the expected thickness of oil on the ocean surface and the quantity and concentration of oil washed up onto the shoreline. These values are then compared with thresholds or indicators to relate the level of oiling seen in the model with potential impacts. “The results of the oil spill model are currently being used in a full environmental and socio-economic impact assessment which is being undertaken by WILDTRUST,” he says. 

The oil properties, oil flow rate and spill duration are important inputs to the model. “While these parameters are not known a priori, conservative assumptions are made to define something which resembles the ‘maximum probable spill’ so that the maximum potential ecological impact can be quantified,” Fearon says. 

“These risk statistics are generated by modelling a single spill scenario 200 times! Each of these 200 simulations differs only in the starting time so that each experiences different currents and winds which drive the fate of oil.” In this way, he says, they are able to quantify the likelihood of various outcomes. 

So what’s the damage?

South Africa’s oceans support rich biodiversity, protect coastal communities and drive industries like tourism. A major spill could devastate these assets.

Researchers found that a 15-day blowout of light crude oil could spread oil over vast distances in just days and that, due to the strong connectivity of South Africa’s oceans, mean that a blow-out spill on the East coast could necessitate beach clean-up operations as far away as the West coast, creating major clean-up challenges.

According to Fearon, the focus of the study was a potential spill off the East coast of South Africa — just offshore of Durban, in about 3000m water depth, in an area being targeted by the oil and gas industry. “The fast-flowing Agulhas Current, which hugs the east coast of South Africa, would transport oil large distances, hindering predictions of where oil would make contact with the shoreline, further complicating clean-up efforts in the event of a spill,” he explains. “Model results also indicate a greater than 50% chance that oil concentrations would exceed the threshold for mortality of shoreline life.” 

Should an incident occur, the model shows that the time to shoreline impact could be as little as three days for South Africa’s East coast. Within 10 days the South coast would be affected; within the month the West coast would be impacted as well. 

What does it matter?

Lauren van Nijkerk is Director of Campaigns at WILDTRUST. She says most people take a healthy ocean for granted: “Every second breath we take comes from the ocean. It gives us food security, provides jobs and multiple ecotourism opportunities, as well as plays a role in weather patterns. A healthy ocean also means our environment is more resilient to the negative impacts of climate change — and healthy ecosystems protect us, especially coastal communities, from some of these impacts.” 

The new tool comes amid a push by civil society to halt the expansion of oil and gas exploration in South Africa’s waters. According to WILDTRUST, however, advocacy efforts have been compromised by the lack of a realistic oil spill model to evaluate risks and impacts. 

This model, as well as the campaign built around it, drills home the potential impacts of an oil spill in South African waters. “It highlights that, unfortunately, everyone who lives in this beautiful country will be directly or indirectly impacted by a spill — no matter where they live,” she explains. “The public outcry on the recent allocation of drilling rights to an oil company is a fantastic illustration of the potential and power the public holds.”  

Engaged stakeholders call for accountability

“This model provides crucial risk information to stakeholders,” Fearon explains, adding that despite concerns, the oil and gas industry continues to seek drilling approvals amid arguments that oil extraction is crucial to address South Africa’s energy needs. “The results of the study will provide stakeholders with an independent assessment of the potential risks posed by deep-water blow-out spills from offshore oil and gas extraction.”

The WILDTRUST oil spill model for the offshore environment of South Africa will provide an objective and scientifically defensible reference to assess potential damages and help generate awareness among decision-makers, the public and affected stakeholders. The organisation hopes this will aid in creating an environment where it is more difficult for big industry roleplayers to obtain approvals for risky proposals that threaten marine biodiversity and marine protected areas. 

The model also underscores the climate impacts of ocean oil drilling — burning fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases, while spills can directly harm marine life and coastal economies: “South Africans are already seeing the extreme effects of climate change in our country — droughts, storms and floods,” cautions Harris. “Promoting additional oil and gas seems questionable when scientists say we have less than 10 years to prevent irreversible damage to the planet as we know it and avoid climate catastrophe.” 

By illuminating the far-reaching risks of offshore oil, the new model is a powerful tool for civil society and policymakers as South Africa charts its maritime future. Those involved in the project hope it can help spur action to protect the oceans and coasts and build a sustainable blue economy that safeguards livelihoods for generations to come. 

An oil spill model, says Harris, is essential to mitigate and avert as much risk as possible: “And this should be a priority for all countries, not just for South Africa.” — Jamaine Krige