The ocean plays a pivotal role in benefiting both humanity and the planet by contributing significantly to social, economic, and environmental well-being. It is critical to food security, biodiverse ecosystems, and helps regulate our global climate. The ocean economy is worth an estimated US$3-6 trillion a year, offering opportunities for economic growth, employment and innovation.
Sadly, the ocean and its benefits are increasingly at risk by human activity, such as pollution, global warming and overfishing. Curbing these effects requires urgent action in using the ocean more sustainably. Earlier this year, the United Nations (UN) signed the High Seas Treaty to protect two-thirds of the ocean and preserve its biodiversity through marine conservation and sustainable fishing.
In South Africa, oceans and coastal resources are vital for those local coastal communities that depend on them. We are fortunate to have productive coastal waters that contribute to over a third of our GDP, supply thousands of jobs through goods and services and serve as a source of food. But only 5.4% of the ocean in South Africa is protected within our country’s exclusive economic zone of the High Seas Treaty, with our marine resources, including fishing, facing over-exploitation, among other threats.
With so much at stake, there is an increasing need for partnerships between stakeholders to find solutions that preserve marine ecosystems and prevent further harm. In addition, there’s an opportunity to leverage technology in conservation efforts and to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which can safeguard the ocean for future generations.
One step in that direction is for the private sector to help drive greater education and awareness among consumers about marine conservation. Digital platforms can be particularly valuable in addressing sustainable patterns of seafood consumption and production. Enabling a positive shift in consumers’ seafood choices contributes to conserving our marine life while at the same time supports socio-economic upliftment in coastal communities and improves food security.
As part of our commitment to using connectivity and innovative technology solutions to minimise biodiversity loss, Vodacom South Africa has partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to support sustainable fishing through the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (WWF-SASSI). This involves various relevant role players in the seafood value chain, to educate consumers, suppliers, retailers, anglers and the fishing industry about the sustainability status of various seafoods, the environmental impact of different fishing methods and practices, and how to make beneficial decisions for ocean conservation.
Initially, our partnership focused on using our connectivity and technology capabilities to establish the WWF-SASSI project office, aid with fieldwork, data and devices, and develop the Fish ID app, which brings awareness to consumers about the sustainable status of seafood species while ensuring retailers are procuring responsibly sourced seafood, providing greater transparency in the supply chain. We are now building on these collaborative efforts to use our network to promote greater awareness among the youth, shifting behaviour at an early age to create a generation well-versed in ocean literacy and sustainable seafood.
Technology is expected to play an increasingly important role in marine conservation as part of efforts to make fishing and aquaculture more sustainable. In Saldanha Bay in the Western Cape, for example, offshore rope-grown mussel farming is being developed as a more sustainable and climate-friendly industry. This type of aquaculture has a low impact on the environment, with the shellfish filtering the water they live in and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Beyond the environmental benefits, mussels are a nutritious source of protein while aquaculture sites can provide employment and empowerment opportunities for local coastal communities whose livelihoods have been affected by overfishing, land development and climate change.
Despite the success of the industry, there still lies the possibility for whales to become entangled in the mussel ropes. An artificial intelligence (AI) powered early warning system has been co-created with the help of Vodacom technology to use cameras and hydrophones to alert aquafarmers to the presence of whales in the Saldanha Bay Aquaculture Development Zone (SBADZ). The system also has the power to automatically activate the ADZ Incident and Emergency Response Protocol in case of entanglement, ensuring a timely response and mitigating the impact of any incident. The project demonstrates how technology can be used to solve sustainability challenges and help preserve marine life and livelihoods.
The ocean is essential to our existence and life on Earth. By developing, supporting and sharing capabilities and innovations, we have the potential to prevent biodiversity loss, enhance sustainable practices and contribute to global positive outcomes for our planet. We need to work together to make this happen.
Takalani Netshitenzhe is Director of External and Regulatory Affairs, Vodacom South Africa