Programme aims to train a pipeline of ocean scientists

Universities in Africa must train a pipeline of interdisciplinary ocean scientists with the knowledge, skills and expertise to meet the growing needs of the Blue Economy and to tackle challenges emerging from global warming as well as overfishing.

One initiative that is expected to address the shortfall of skills in ocean science is the development of a new, high-quality, interdisciplinary, inclusive and internationally-recognised South African Masters in Ocean Sciences (SAMOS).

This programme, expected to be implemented in 2026, will integrate the knowledge teaching capacities and student bodies of nine South African universities reflecting the full breadth of expertise in ocean sciences found in South Africa and will address Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water, which aims to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

South Africa is one of 38 countries in Africa that has a coastline, with Madagascar having the longest at about 4,800km and the Democratic Republic of Congo the shortest, with only 37km.

Several higher education institutions in these countries have incorporated ocean science, often linked to economic activities such as aquaculture, into their higher education programmes.

Ghana for instance, has been making advances in ocean science through the Maritime University, the University of Ghana and the University of Cape Coast, which is an African Center of Excellence in Coastal Resilience as recognised by the World Bank.

In South Africa the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Nelson Mandela Universities (NMU) have emerged as leaders.

NMU, for example, has a growing skills base in ocean science including an ocean sciences campus that is known for pioneering transdisciplinary, postgraduate ocean sciences research, teaching, innovation and engagement.

UCT, on the other hand, offers two undergraduate degrees in ocean and atmospheric sciences and marine biology. In addition, the university offers a masters in Applied Ocean Sciences which comprises coursework and a research project.

Both UCT and NMU are involved in the development of the new masters programme.

An interdisciplinary approach

Professor Marcello Vichi, the director of the Marine and Antarctic Research Centre for Innovation and Sustainability (MARiS) at UCT, shared some perspectives with University World News on the importance of ocean science for Africa including the need for interdisciplinary approaches that prepare learners to react, adjust and adapt to changes in these fields.

“In our Applied Ocean Sciences we start from the view that oceans are social ecological systems where humans interact with the physical and the ecological aspects and are also exposed to the governance aspects and how people have started to realise the [importance] of conservation and management of ocean resources,” he said.

Applied Ocean Sciences at UCT covers social ecological systems, ocean governance, physical, commercial and ecological oceanography, as well as scientific computing and data management and numerical skills and statistics.

Vichi noted that creating a pipeline of professionals that are educated in ocean culture is of utmost importance to bridge the gaps in the relationship between people and the ocean in Africa.

The ocean is often viewed as a foreign static entity as opposed to a moving environment that is largely affected by weather and climate. As a result of this detachment, there may be a lack of passion and interest in graduates to pursue oceanography in view of the Blue Economy more broadly.

“Either on the academic or professional side, graduates are less likely to embark on careers that relate to the ocean, the Blue Economy and the use of resources, management and conservation. This is relevant because there is a long history of conservation in the terrestrial field but a lot less in the coastal and open ocean,” he said.

According to the World Bank, the Blue Economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.”

South Africa, despite its large economy, lacks in-depth knowledge of the ocean particularly at decision making levels, which has led to the mismanagement and misalignment of resources connected to the coastal zones such as fishery, coastal and deep ocean mining and the exploitation of oil and gas resources.

“Southern Africa in general needs a lot more experienced professionals that would allow governments and monitoring bodies to have an informed view of the ocean without having to rely on knowledge from the Global North.

“The experiences from the Global North do not apply to the African context, particularly in terms of the interaction with the social component and the culture of the ocean,” he said.

Proper training in ocean science comes at the huge cost of instrumentation, which is often lacking at the majority of higher education institutions in Africa.

Vichi implored universities to leverage the innovation capabilities of engineering departments to design local instrumentation required for monitoring and measuring different elements of the ocean such as temperatures, ocean acidification, and the microbiome such as bacteria, plankton and the invisible elements that constitute the base of the ocean food web and Blue Economy.

Humanising ocean science

In West Africa, Ghana has made huge strides in ocean science education due to its long coastline and its need for more ocean scientists to help tackle challenges such as the impact of a rising sea level on communities.

The country, which has a ministry of fisheries and aquaculture development, helped to establish the Maritime University in Ghana which offers diverse programmes including marine engineering.

The University of Ghana, which is the largest public university in the country, has been running courses and programmes in marine and fisheries science at all levels for a long time.

In 2019, the University of Cape Coast, which also prides itself as the ‘Sea-Front University’ was designated as an African Center of Excellence in Coastal Resilience by the World Bank.

These different programmes serve as focal points for collaborative research, training and learning on coastal zone issues in Ghana and across the West African sub-region.

Dr Bob Manteaw, a senior research fellow at the Center for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies at the University of Ghana, highlighted the critical importance of ocean science education in Ghana and how it is prioritised in universities and also in policymaking.

“At the Center for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies we look at the impact of climate change on coastal communities, including human-water interactions, ocean health, coastal migration and resilience. There are also socio-economic, socio-ecological and political considerations in the study of coastal ecosystems and marine life.

These are normally offered in inter and transdisciplinary approaches that bring people from diverse backgrounds, disciplines and expertise to come together to teach and research ocean science from the perspective of sustainable development and climate change,” he said.

Manteaw, who was part of a three-day ocean expedition that was organised by the International Association of Universities and the University of Bergen, Norway in January 2023, argued that ocean science must go beyond theories at African universities.

He noted that “ocean science education must be experiential and place-based to provide opportunities for both learners, teachers and researchers to experience the ocean and ocean life in real life situations and in specific places”.

The workshop brought together researchers and educators from 14 universities in climate and marine science, biology and related disciplines to exchange best practices on teaching and research for Sustainable Development Goals, particularly on ocean and climate.

His presentation reflected how oceans are interconnected with different aspects of human and environmental life, on ecological and planetary health as well as coastal communities and livelihoods.

“The beauty of that engagement was how diverse people came together to join the expedition to demonstrate how connected the systems of nature are and the importance of nurturing them,” he said.

Isabel Toman, the programme officer for sustainable development at the International Association of Universities (IAU), highlighted that one of the key activities of the global association is to help facilitate exchange between experts at universities.

“With a coastline length of over 30,000 km, and being one of the continents that will be most strongly affected by climate change and rising sea levels, higher education institutions in Africa are uniquely placed to research local challenges and find solutions for these matters, keeping a global outlook and involving the students,” Toman said.

“Teaching and Learning about sustainability matters, especially with regard to the interconnected SDGs 13 (Climate Action) and 14 (Life Below Water), as these are crucial to build the next generation of experts and leaders in ocean science.”

Masters in Ocean Science proposed

Experts at an IAU workshop included partners of the proposed South African Masters in Ocean Sciences, or SAMOS, a project that is still in a developmental stage.

Steven Herbette, the coordinator of the SAMOS programme told University World News that in the context of a rapidly increasing Blue Economy, it was critical for South Africa to expand its pool of highly skilled students in marine science in order to address emerging challenges from global warming and overfishing.

“Currently, only one South African university offers a comprehensive coursework masters programme in ocean sciences, achieving limited transformation in the students cohort. There are also major gaps still apparent between Historically Advantaged Universities (HAUs) and Historically Disadvantaged Universities (HDUs) in South Africa,” he said

“Therefore, we started working on the development of [a] new, high-quality, inclusive and internationally-recognised South African Masters in Ocean Sciences.

This programme should integrate the knowledge, teaching capacities and student bodies of nine South African universities (both HAUs and HDUs), reflecting the full breadth of expertise in ocean sciences found in South Africa.”

The SAMOS consortium includes NMU, UCT, the universities of the Western Cape, Kwazulu-Natal, Fort Hare and Zululand, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Rhodes University and Walter Sisulu University.

Herbette highlighted that the curriculum is still being finalised and that it would be submitted for accreditation in January 2024 with the programme expected to welcome its first cohort in February 2026 after a two-year preparatory phase.