The Ocean Stewards Program was launched this year with support from The Blue Fund, a partnership between Grindrod Ltd and Wildlands. It is being carried out in partnership with the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) which is funded by the National Research Foundation, through the activities of it’s the east coast biodiversity mapping and research projects. These ACEP projects aim to identify critical areas that need protection by inclusion in an expanded network of Marine Protected Areas for South Africa. They are being led by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the University of KwaZulu-Natal scientists, in collaboration with the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, Oceanographic Research Institute and the South African Environmental Observation Network.
The goal of the Ocean Stewards Program is to address the shortage of conservation science and management capacity for the marine environment in which threats are escalating at an unprecedented alarming rate. Healthy oceans play a crucial role in providing essential ecosystem services such as food and oxygen, and buffering coastal communities against global change threats. The importance of the ocean to the economy of was recognised by the launch of the national Phakisa project in 2014 to unlock the economic potential of the oceans. The success of this intervention will depend on balancing industrial activities with adequate governance and protection of the marine environment so as to ensure sustainability.
In South Africa, the ability to meet these challenges and exploit these opportunities is being compromised by insufficient human capacity within the marine science and conservation management sectors, coupled with a paucity of accessible and affordable infrastructure to conduct science and effective governance and law enforcement. These marine stewardship capacity shortfalls are linked to slow transformation, lack of career-pathing at schools, and the fact that very few undergraduate marine science students continue to post-graduate level. Further, owing to the lack of affordable ship-based platforms even most students who do complete marine science degrees have never conducted any fieldwork at sea and have very little understanding of the offshore environment.
The Ocean Stewards Program was initiated earlier this year to begin to address this key challenge by providing catalytic marine science, management and industry exposure to a new generation of science students. In so doing, it aims to promote the emergence of new Ocean Stewards that are equipped and inspired to ensure effective future governance and protection of the oceans.
The Ocean Stewards Program is designed to provide a cohort of emerging science students with a formative experiential journey that gives them unique insights into marine conservation and inspires them to pursue marine science as a career. It also aims to provide a conduit for them to take real steps towards becoming professional marine scientists and conservationists through ongoing mentorship and support.