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SAEON assists South Africa in gearing up for the blue (or oceans) economy

By Nicole du Plessis and Juliet Hermes, SAEON Egagasini Node*
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From the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean to the rich kelp forests of the Atlantic (pictured here), South Africa's coast is one of the richest and most biologically diverse marine environments on Earth

On 29 January 2016, the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, launched the South African Marine Research and Exploration Forum (SAMREF) at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town.

The forum is a joint initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Offshore Petroleum Association of South Africa (OPASA). The minister signed a memorandum of understanding with OPASA Chairperson Mr Sean Lunn to establish the forum.

Broadening the scope of research expeditions

SAMREF is a platform aimed at fostering collaboration between the scientific community and the oil and gas industry, but this has been expanded to other offshore resource extraction industries.

Part of the reason for the collaboration is the high expenses associated with running and maintaining research vessels. By exploiting the at-sea opportunities presented by offshore industries, or gaining access to historical and new data collected during surveys, scientists could minimise their research expenses and gain access to areas of the ocean not normally sampled during regular research expeditions.

SAMREF will encompass members of government and State-owned companies, research agencies, the oil and gas industry and other representatives of the private sector. Daily management of the forum will be vested in the National Research Foundation (NRF), an agency of the DST. The forum will enhance cooperation between the public and private sectors and improve the exchange of information and data on a voluntary basis between all stakeholders.

Important asset

Speaking at the launch, Minister Pandor said the South African coastal and marine environment was one of our most important assets. "It plays a major role in regulating our climate, has tremendous natural biodiversity and supports numerous communities through fishing, tourism and mining."

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The Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, and OPASA Chairman, Sean Lunn, sign the memorandum of understanding in Cape Town on 29 January 2016 (Image: DST)

Oil and gas is one of Operation Phakisa's four main target sectors (Picture: Wikipedia)

The Minister added that government's priority now - in the current global economic crisis - was to promote better cooperation between business and government. "Business and government need to work together to increase South Africa's gross expenditure on research and development - from the current 0,7% of GDP to 1,5% by 2019,” the Minister said. “While the target is ambitious, we are committed to achieving it."

Mr Sean Lunn pointed out that both corporate and public citizens of South Africa had an opportunity to add tangible value to South Africa's marine infrastructure, protection services and ocean governance.

"This is achieved through fostering good relations and partnership programmes, such as those being driven through SAMREF, and growing the public sector's research database on the marine and oceanic environment. This is a step in the right direction for understanding the offshore environment in which we operate, and provides a research conduit that drives policy and precision in decision making and strengthens capabilities in effective mitigation strategies, based on the best available science."

NRF Knowledge Fields Development Executive Director Dr Andrew Kaniki added, "This is an opportunity for the public and private sectors in South African marine research to work together and utilise the resources generated by offshore oil and gas exploration. We, as the NRF, are pleased to be the managing agency of this great initiative."

New collaborative offshore studies

The establishment of SAMREF will facilitate new collaborative offshore studies that will increase South Africa's state of knowledge of the offshore marine environment, the benefits of renewable energy, marine biodiversity and ecology, climate change and ecosystem functioning, and it will go some way towards mitigating the policy conflict between developing the oil and gas sector and the development of a low-carbon economy.

It will also increase opportunities for publicly funded research institutions and individuals to gather data and information that will allow better informed management decisions relating to the marine ecosystem.

Operation Phakisa B3 Initiative

The creation of SAMREF signifies that the B3 element of Operation Phakisa has been successfully started. Operation Phakisa, launched in 2014, is concerned with developing and protecting South Africa’s marine resources and ecosystems. B3 covers using offshore oil and gas exploration activities to support broader research activities.

The SAEON Egagasini Node was the implementing agency for the Operation Phakisa B3 Initiative. A kickstart workshop was held in July 2015 to introduce the B3 Initiative to researchers and industry representatives as well as allow them to contribute to the design and establishment of SAMREF.

This was followed by a research sector workshop held in September 2015, which focused on possible research opportunities and the tools being developed to facilitate collaboration between researchers and offshore extraction industries. The project was funded by the DST.

The first phase of Operation Phakisa focused on the blue economy and aimed to unlock the potential of our country's vast marine resources. With 3 000 km of coastline, South Africa is a major maritime nation. We live close to water and look to the sea, estuaries and rivers for food, jobs, energy, transport, recreation and tourism.

South Africa's coast - from the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean to the rich kelp forests of the Atlantic - is one of the richest and most biologically diverse marine environments on Earth. The Benguela Current, off our west coast, supports large quantities of fish, while the Agulhas Current, off our east coast, has a smaller quantity of fish, but a greater diversity of species.

Oceans (or blue) economy

Unlike the green economy which is focused on reducing environmental degradation and ecological scarcity, the oceans (or blue) economy is focused on sustainably developing ocean-based resources while maximising economic growth. Proactively determining the use of various ocean and coastal areas - whether for fishing, recreation, offshore mineral extraction, aquaculture or shipping - will minimise conflict as the various industries grow and determine the responses needed in case of emergencies such as oil spills. This will require countries to have a sound understanding of their ocean environment with the potential for increased investment in ocean research, both in the private and public sectors.

The unlocking of marine resources has the potential to increase its contribution to South Africa's GDP by more than R20 billion over five years. The Operation Phakisa Oceans Economy Lab focuses on four critical areas for sustainable economic development: marine transport and manufacturing; offshore oil and gas exploration; aquaculture; and marine protection services and ocean governance.

The oceans economy in South Africa has been estimated to have the potential to contribute up to R177bn to the economy by 2033 compared to R54bn in 2010, and create a million jobs. Of this, the oil and gas industry has the potential to contribute R2.2bn to the GDP and create 130 000 jobs.


Participants in the kickstart workshop held at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in July 2015 to introduce Initiative B3 (Picture: Johan Pauw)

Further information can be found at:


*Nicole du Plessis is a project officer at the SAEON Egagasini Node. Dr Juliet Hermes is the manager of the Node.

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