Legislating Life – SA’s Battle for Marine Preservation


Life rose from our oceans. Covering some 72 per cent of the Earth’s surface and 225 million square kilometres, the ocean has always been an important source of food and oxygen for the life it helped generate. But from the earliest recorded human history, it has also served for trade and commerce, adventure and discovery. It has brought people together.

Even now, when the continents have been mapped and their interiors made accessible by road, river and air, most of the world’s people live within 300km of the sea and relate closely to it, but particularly in South Africa where we have 2800km of coastline, it forms a massive part of our trade, infrastructure, and national identity.

So… what is going on in it, and what should we be doing to protect it?

Freedom of the Seas
The oceans had long been subject to the freedom of-the-seas doctrine – a principle put forth in the 17th century, essentially limiting national rights and jurisdiction over the oceans to a narrow sea belt surrounding a nation’s coastline (1). The rest of the seas were declared free for all and belonged to none. While this situation lasted into the twentieth century, by mid-century there was an impetus to extend national claims over offshore resources.

There is a growing concern over the toll taken on coastal fish stocks by long-distance fishing fleets and over the threat of pollution and wastes from transport vessels and oil tankers carrying noxious cargoes that plied sea routes across the globe. The threat of pollution was always present for coastal resorts and all forms of ocean life. The navies of the maritime powers are competing for a worldwide presence in surface waters, and even below.

The Law of the Sea
This is a body of international law governing the rights and duties of states in maritime environments. It concerns matters such as navigational rights, sea mineral claims, and coastal waters jurisdiction. While drawn from several international customs, treaties, and agreements, modern law of the sea derives largely from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), effective since 1994, which is generally accepted as a codification of customary international law of the sea and is sometimes regarded as the “constitution of the oceans”

Maritime Law (also known as Admiralty Law)
This applies to private maritime issues, such as the carriage of goods by sea, rights of salvage, ship collisions, and marine insurance. It is the body of law that governs nautical issues and private maritime disputes, consisting of both domestic law on maritime activities and private international law governing the relationships between private parties operating or using ocean-going ships. (2) While each legal jurisdiction usually has its own legislation governing maritime matters, the international nature of the topic and the need for uniformity has, since 1900, led to considerable international maritime law developments, including numerous multilateral treaties.

Ocean and Marine Life Protection Acts and Treaties
These are a combination of both international and national laws that focus on the following:
– Wildlife and mammal protection
– Pollution prevention
– Fishing limitations and protections
– Protection of the environment


In South Africa our constitution provides for everyone to have the right:

a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being,

b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that
(i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation

(ii) promote conservation

(iii) secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development


  1. Climate change:
    Higher ocean temperatures and rising sea levels.
    RESULT: Coral bleaching, fish migrations, drowning wetlands, ocean acidification, and ultimately an irreversible disastrous feedback loop for trade, tourism, and health.
  2. Pollution:
    Plastics, oil, dumping, and chemicals such as fertiliser run-off.
    RESULT: Ultimately all pollutants in the ocean make their way back to humans, be it through the water cycle or the food we eat.
  3. Sustainable seafood:
    Overfishing is leading to the extinction of ocean life
    RESULT: Not only will we suffer, but other animals that rely on the food chain will become extinct, collapsing far-reaching ecosystems.
  4. Marine Protected Areas:
    These are the nature reserves of the ocean
    RESULT: These must be protected to provide safe spaces for sea life to breed and recover undisturbed, without the pressure of humans and fishing.
  5. Deep-Sea Mining:
    Underwater mining, oil drilling, laying of sea cables, and seabed dredging.
    RESULT: The scraping of the ocean floor by machines alters and destroys deep-sea habitats, leading to the loss of species and fragmentation or loss of ecosystem structure and function.

Until something affects us personally, we often don’t see the urgency, but the reality is that it already is, on 3 important levels:

Tourism – Accounting for 4.5% of our employment and 3% of our GDP in 2019, tourism is an essential cornerstone of South Africa. Protecting the ocean and the wildlife is central to the thriving of this industry.

Economy – Oceans and ocean life are the source of income for individuals and industries, from fishing to trade to tourism. It is a resource that helps to cement the South African economy, and in a post-Covid climate, we need to guard it fiercely.

Conservation – This is argumentatively the most important point, but often the hardest to grasp. The ocean produces over half of the world’s oxygen and absorbs 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere. And covering 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface, the ocean transports heat from the equator to the poles, regulating our climate and weather patterns.

In South Africa Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have been a hot source of debate – while we want to protect our waters from international assault, how do we still allow our citizens to sustainably engage this resource? The answer, of course, lies in fair and forward-thinking legislation to protect all parties. (3) Permits

The 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy is being actioned, and the overarching goal is to foster increased wealth creation from Africa’s oceans and seas by developing a sustainable thriving blue economy in a secure and environmentally sustainable manner. (1) (3)

Last month, delegates to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) global conservation summit voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining and the reform of the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

Locally, Barbara Creecy is under pressure to halt the importing of plastics and sign an international treaty with 119 other United Nations members to form a new global agreement on plastic pollution. Creecy responded: “South Africa is aware of the global discussions around a potential new international treaty on marine litter and plastic pollution and has been participating actively in the United Nations Environment Assembly’s (UNEA’s) ad-hoc open-ended expert group on marine litter and microplastics where the matter has been considered.”

Perhaps the pivotal way to encourage a greater sense of national pride and protection in our oceans is education. Once people can understand the roles the ocean plays in our lives, and the consequences surrounding the neglect thereof, we will surely have more invested interest from all sectors of society.

“It’s an ongoing awareness movement to foster lifelong appreciation and protection of our oceans. The reality is, without our contribution towards ocean conservation, the majority of marine life faces an uncertain future. And without a healthy marine ecosystem, we too face an uncertain future. Young people owe [it] to themselves and the future generations to create a better tomorrow.”  – Youth4MPAs, Merrisa Naidoo

10 Ways to Help Our Oceans

1. Conserve Water
2. Reduce Pollutants
3. Reduce Waste
4. Shop Sustainably (…or quit seafood completely!)
5. Reduce Vehicle Pollution
6. Use Less Energy
7. Fish Responsibly
8. Practice Safe Boating
9. Respect Habitats
10. Volunteer

… or choose a career that focuses on the ocean! Ocean engineering, marine biology, marine archaeology and even filmmaking are all things that go towards maintaining this essential part of our ecosystem, and therefore the future of our planet.


  1. The Law of the Sea: The African Union and its Member States, Patrick Vrancken & Martin Tsamenyi
  2. Admiralty Jurisdiction
  3. Journal of Ocean Law and Governance in Africa

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