Three ways to secure the ocean’s survival

22 Jul 2020 - 09:30

A new paper co-authored by UCT’s Dr Philile Mbatha describes three key transition pathways for the complex ocean systems to ensure a more sustainable future. Photo Sean A Thompson.

Humanity must change its relationship with the ocean, a shared global commons, to stave off a collapse of the world’s marine environment and resources, says a new paper, “A transition to sustainable ocean governance”, published in Nature Communications. The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Dr Philile Mbatha is a contributing author.

The Nature Communications article is a summary of a Blue Paper compiled by the authors under the commission of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel for short), an initiative of 14 serving world leaders to build a sustainable ocean economy, based on effective protection, sustainable production and equitable prosperity.

Three pathways

Over 70% of the earth’s surface is ocean, and humanity is reliant on a healthy ocean for the renewal of freshwater; the paper describes an integration of three pathways to ensure its sustainability.

The first is re-configuring governance, including top-down and bottom-up local and international perspectives, informed by a shared vision. The second is empowering people who depend on the ocean commons through knowledge sharing for adaptive learning and conferring rights to the ocean as a public good. The third is reforming ownership in stewardship terms through mechanisms such as certification and pre-competitive collaboration, which will provide incentives and help build accountability. Here examples such as the Marine Stewardship Council’s fishery certification system and rights-based fishery reforms like catch shares are promising innovations.

Mbatha worked with the paper’s lead authors, Tanya Brodie Rudolph, a research fellow at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University, and Mary Ruckelshaus of Stanford University’s Natural Capital Project. Contributors included researchers working at the interface of marine law, the environment, geography and governance*.

“Human wellbeing relies on the biosphere, including natural resources provided by ocean ecosystems. As multiple demands and stressors threaten the ocean, transformative change in ocean governance is required to maintain the contributions of the ocean to people,” said Brodie Rudolph.


“We need to take better care of this shared resource for the health and prosperity of current and future generations.”

“We need to take better care of this shared resource for the health and prosperity of current and future generations, for the environment, for biodiversity and for the climate. The way we have governed the ocean in the past hasn’t reflected these complex relationships.”

The authors also pointed to more cooperative ways to manage ocean space, systems of traceability and accountability in fisheries value chains, decarbonising shipping, and legal innovations such as establishing defensible rights for non-human nature and a clean environment as a human right.

Co-author Dr Philile Mbatha of UCT’s Department of Environmental & Geographical Science. Photo Je’nine May.

“If we are to move towards a more sustainable approach to ocean governance, we need governance approaches that are co-produced by all relevant actors,” said Mbatha.

“We need governance approaches that are not only environmentally or economically viable, but ones that are also socially just and inclusive – where power is evenly distributed in governance processes and practice.”

Mbatha is a lecturer in the Department of Environmental & Geographical Science (EGS) and convenor of the Geography, Development and Environment course and the MSc/MPhil in Environment, Society and Sustainability. Her area of expertise is natural resource governance, with a focus on marine and coastal environments in rural areas.

Butterfly effect

Complex systems such as the ocean pose huge challenges for researchers. They are such that small disruptions can have disproportionately large impactful system-wide effects, said Brodie Rudolph, a marine lawyer.

“The COVID-19 crisis is the classic example of this well-known ‘butterfly effect’: from the over-exploitation of nature in a Wuhan wild meat market to a global pandemic, this crisis demonstrates the absolute necessity to build the kind of resilience that enables effective, agile responses to sudden system changes. This is as true for the complex ocean system we depend on.”

Should the ocean system collapse, the crisis would be as devastating as the COVID-19 catastrophe.

“In fact, it is now more important than ever to understand complex systems and how they can be made more resilient for the benefit of people, the economy and the environment,” she added.

“The way we have governed the ocean in the past has not been effective and hasn’t reflected these complex relationships. This paper suggests a new way of thinking about the ocean as a shared resource and shows how social and economic systems can adapt and transform. A governance system which recognises the complex role the ocean plays as a shared resource, and builds on changes already underway, would support the transition to a thriving relationship between humanity and the ocean.”

Rural communities left out

Mbatha’s interest in coastal resource governance stems from her desire to understand its implications on rural people who are often left out and perplexed by complex governance structures and processes involved in governing resources.


“The issue is particularly pertinent in countries such as South Africa.”

“The issue is particularly pertinent in countries such as South Africa, where processes for conserving coastal resources are often at odds with rural livelihoods and development.”

Mbatha’s PhD thesis examined similar issues in the communities of Kosi Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. She said that for too long coastal governance had been conducted in a fragmented and uncoordinated way, with a negative impact on resource governability.

Research enriches teaching and learning

Now, as an academic staff member of the EGS department, Mbatha has been able to introduce perspectives from rural contexts into the curriculum. These had brought a richness to the understanding of human geography, she said.

The findings of the new paper and her role will also add value to her teaching. She has developed a “brand new” postgraduate course in the department: Environmental Governance in the Global South.

“I started teaching this in the second semester … the paper feeds very well into the debates that are covered in my course,” she said.


“I cannot rest on my laurels; there is definitely so much work to be done.”

Being involved in this publication has been “a great highlight”.

“It’s been a great honour for me to work with a team of such dedicated and driven intellectuals. But I cannot rest on my laurels; there is definitely so much work to be done.”

Mbatha is tackling new publications that stem from her PhD research. She is also involved in a global transdisciplinary UK Global Challenges Research Fund project called One Ocean Hub.

“The project was awarded last year and we are busy with the research and have some publications lined up for that too.”

* Professor Mark Swilling of the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University was a lead author. Contributing authors include Eddie Allison, WorldFish Research Chair for Equity and Justice, Malaysia, and the Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Center; EarthLab, University of Washington; Henrik Österblom from the Stockholm Resilience Centre; and Stefan Gelcich from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Story:  Helen Swingler