Connecting science-policy recommendations across ocean research projects

By Kerry Sink, Taryn Pereira, Jackie Sunde and Elisa Morgera

Five major ocean research projects, representing over £50 million investment and 400 researchers from over 120 institutes from over 30 countries were brought together to distil shared key messages for policy makers in South Africa. A three-day science-to-policy workshop for marine ecosystem-based management was held at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Cape Town, 22-24 August 2023). This blog post reflects on the key messages arising from the workshop and further synergies within Hub research, the innovative methodology of the workshop, the benefits for early-career researchers, and next steps.

Connecting learnings across diverse ocean research projects

The joint project meeting was held to share findings and co-develop recommendations across five international projects targeted to South African policy-makers: Mission Atlantic, iAtlantic, One Ocean Hub, AtlantEco and TRIATLAS. Participants shared research progress across international projects in the region, considered how to strengthen collaborations across projects, and reflected on challenges and opportunities to enhance the management of marine ecosystems and to shape future research. There were 38 researchers during the first two days, including a team of Early Career Researchers, and 69 participants joined on the last day to engage in science-policy reflections, with government representatives involved in processes on marine spatial planning, marine protected areas and fisheries management.

Representatives of the One Ocean Hub’s team in South Africa underscored research co-development with Indigenous and local communities, facilitated by social science-led and arts-based approaches, was a key ingredient for the Hub’s approach to carrying out policy-relevant ocean research across marine and social sciences. In addition, the reliance on ocean-dependent human rights as a matter of research design, and the engagement from the start with various UN agencies that focus on ocean governance, environmental protection and human rights, supported the Hub’s impacts at the ocean science-policy interface at different levels.

Taryn Pereira and Kira Erwin, from the Coastal Justice Network, highlighted the critical importance of taking small-scale fisher rights and contributions into account in ocean decision making, and spoke about the ways in which the science-to-policy pipeline has excluded or misrepresented small-scale fisher knowledge in the past. They shared some of their research and methods for meaningful knowledge co-production and policy engagement with fishers and other coastal communities.

Hub researcher Lynne Shannon delivered a keynote presentation titled “How to move local ecosystem research into the global biodiversity science-policy arena, and vice versa.”

As part of a reflection on policy concerns and opportunities, Hub Director Elisa Morgera called attention to:

  • The recognition of everyone’s right to a healthy environment in the Global Biodiversity Framework as an opportunity for transformative approaches in marine biodiversity conservation;
  • applying a children’s’ human rights lens to ocean research and decision-making to achieve broader and longer-term social and environmental outcomes;
  • better understanding the connections between marine biodiversity and human health (pandemics, non-communicable diseases, mental health, etc.) can contribute to policy impacts (such as providing more evidence pointing to the economic savings in the health sectors that authorities can achieve by conserving biodiversity and sustainably managing it);
  • there has been too limited acknowledgment of the importance of the ocean and marine biodiversity in the international climate change regime, so we need to look for alternative fora to co-develop ecosystem-based and human rights-based approaches to ocean solutions to climate change;
  • researchers need to find ways for decision-makers to learn from complex issues, rather than avoiding complexity, because it is there where the transformative potential lies; and
  • researchers are not separate from policy-making processes and in fact can prototype innovative governance modalities through which to integrate their research findings in future decision-making processes.

Key messages for South African policy-makers

The key messages identified for the policy makers across the projects were:

  • Improved methods and models have generated new knowledge on ocean benefits, connectivity and cumulative impacts under changing climate. 
  • Emerging novel approaches to improve participation can strengthen implementation and policy coherence (in other words, we need to integrate social science-led participatory processes that go beyond the “tick box”)
  • The indirect and cumulative impacts of mining and petroleum on the ocean and people are now better understood. However, they are not sufficiently considered in EIAs.

  • The lack of an overarching fisheries policy that includes small-scale, commercial and recreational fisheries undermines the management of resources and compromises the goal of equitable fisheries
  • Omission of small-scale and recreational fishers from many planning and decision-making processes results in conflict and  threatens social and environmental justice.

In addition, researchers called for:

  • improving participation in marine spatial planning and the implementation of the new global target of 30×30 in relation to new marine protected areas,
  • better considering cumulative impacts, including the impacts of climate change, in marine spatial planning and impact assessments;
  • increasing effort to work with small-scale and recreational fishers to improve integrated policy and co-management of resources;
  • better mapping of the fishing grounds can support marine spatial planning, with the mapping of small-scale fisheries being the priority and with some initial progress in this important area of work.

It was interesting and stimulating to have policy makers, government officials and researchers together in a room, responding to and expanding upon the key messages brought by researchers; however, the actual impact of this exchange in terms of changes to policy and practice remains to be seen.

The  workshop was unusual in terms of the breadth of content covered in terms of projects, disciplines and detailed content;      the meaningful participation of early career researchers throughout and the space for in-depth discussion with policy makers to co-develop recommendations      to address key findings.   The workshop was useful for linking multiple projects, surfacing knowledge gaps and will be used by SANBi in formulating the key recommendations for South Africa’s National Biodiversity Assessment.      

Project synergies

Several new areas of cooperation were identified during the workshop to enhance synergies across the five projects. For instance, the Integrated Ecosystem Assessment of the Mission Atlantic project produced networks of linkages among sectors, their associated pressures and how these pressures can simultaneously affect ecological components (including interactive (and potentially cumulative impacts) that can be connected with the cultural connections to the ocean and related ecosystem services explored by the One Ocean Hub. Such synergy can help understand how they may be impacted by sectoral activity could be added to an expanded network in iterative improvements of the risk assessments  and their accompanying linkage networks in Mission Atlantic for improve the  contextualisation of management priorities.

In addition, it was recognized that the One Ocean Hub incorporates arts-based communication approaches to emphasize emotional, cultural and religious connections of Indigenous peoples and other groups to the sea that are relevant for other ocean research projects. References was made specifically to cultural connections to the deep-sea and the need for this to be considered alongside emerging pressures such as deep-sea mining and oil and gas exploration.   

Further, the One Ocean Hub provided evidence and innovative methods for improved participation of small-scale and subsistence fishers in marine spatial planning and biodiversity protection efforts, which were considered adaptable for other consultation and decision-making processes. Combining these results with results from TriAtlas can guide efforts to plan for avoiding further impacts on the most vulnerable and inform planning for increased resilience of small-scale and subsistence fishers. 

What is more, the better understanding of ecosystem services delivered by deep-sea habitats under the One Ocean Hub was considered helpful to inform considerations of cumulative impacts in the Mission Atlantic and iAtlantic projects. 

Finally, new inter- and transdisciplinary synergies were identified within the One Ocean Hub. For instance, it was recognised that social science research mapping of mining concessions and their impacts on the marine environment could fill a gap in natural resource data on cumulative impacts on marine biodiversity, that currently relies mainly on data on negative impacts on fisheries. In addition, it was interesting to hear the views of Hub researchers in the marine sciences about their learnings on the role of social sciences and arts in supporting participatory processes for fair, as well as more effective, action on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity. There was also an interesting observation about how the models developed from a marine science perspective tend to see human impacts as negative on marine biodiversity, and therefore do not take into account the positive impacts of ocean defenders. 

Interesting interactions across fishery sectors operating in the ocean space emerged in discussions between fisheries scientists working on recreational fisheries and social scientists working on small-scale fisheries. By examining fisheries policy and management from a social and human rights-based perspective, rather than from a species-specific perspective, which is the current dominant approach within the fisheries authority in South Africa, these scientists were able to identify areas of overlap and intersection between recreational fisheries and small-scale sector and how a failure to regulate the recreational sector impacts the rights of small-scale fishers. Equally, a failure to ensure appropriate, inclusive regulatory mechanisms for inclusion in the small-scale sector may have the unforeseen consequence of forcing fishers to masquerade as recreational fishers. These intersections loop back to issues of critical relevance in policy interventions aimed at securing equitable and sustainable fisheries.


The workshop methodology sought to distil and summarise a vast amount of knowledge and research in a way that could resonate with policy makers, and co-create key recommendations to address main research findings, involving both researchers and policy makers, for improved policy uptake. A world café format then allowed for in depth discussion with policy makers with five groups that discussed each of five key findings and jointly developed recommendations to address these key findings, involving both researchers and policy makers, for improved policy uptake. The workshop had independent facilitators with combined experience in environmental and organisational learning, policy engagement and development and working at the science to policy interface.

On day two, working groups were convened around three themes (Ocean Governance, Fisheries and Mining) that emerged at the end of day one. Several key findings were formulated around each of the three themes, noting supporting research evidence from across the five projects, and why these findings mattered (the so what). Initial thoughts on what could be done about it (a potential call to action/ recommendation) were also discussed. Each group presented their key findings in plenary and based on the information shared it was collectively agreed that the microbiome, deep-sea aspects and microplastics should be highlighted as key emerging research issues that could also be presented to policy makers. The intention here was to make policy makers aware of these as emerging research areas rather than key findings which have emerged from established research across multiple projects. 

After further distillation, five key findings were identified and refined in five working groups. At the end of day two, each group produced a single slide with a key finding, links to multi-project evidence and in some cases a brief summary of the main implications.

Views of early-career researchers

Aimee Cloete (University of Cape Town) provided the following feedback on the workshop from an early-career researcher’s perspective:

“Thank you for meaningfully including us in this exciting, novel process. It speaks directly to key finding 2: meaningful participation is a strength not a weakness. It’s powerful and important and can only be a benefit to everyone involved.

 We have all agreed that we felt our feelings opinions and questions were HEARD. It is important to feel heard and not just be “allowed to speak”. There’s a difference because being heard helps us feel that we have the potential to make meaningful contributions NOW – not in 20 years’ time when we’re a well-established scientist. 

This experience has taught us way more than we could have ever learnt in a classroom. It’s been an extremely stimulating environment that’s allowed us to learn so much about translating policy into science. How to do it, who should do it and why it’s important.  This understanding on how to bridge the gap between science and policy making from the beginning of our careers is going to give us an advantage with policy relevant research in the future. 

The last 3 days have been a huge encouragement and boost of confidence for us knowing that the research community is willing to give us a seat at the table. Allowing future generations to have a seat at the table is so important for the transformative goals we have in South Africa as a whole (and globally) and we would like to encourage all other sectors to follow suite.”

Namibian PhD student Ndamona reflected that ‘’Participating in this workshop was a transformative experience for me, fostering personal growth and inspired a commitment to contribute meaningfully to the realm of science-informed policy that is applicable to the Namibian community in ocean governance. The workshop discussed key findings, research gaps and next steps across the five international projects in marine science in the Benguela region and engaging policy makers in ocean governance. As an emerging researcher, I grasped that being an exceptional scientist extends beyond research and publications. Advising policymakers effectively, requires fluent communication, bravery, and well-informed research findings. This newfound understanding is prompting me to train further in conveying my work’s significance to diverse audiences.’’


All the participants expressed interest in drawing from the Cape Town workshop lessons in the co-design of future research initiatives, including those under new Atlantic initiatives, Horizon 2020 and other international, regional and local initiatives.

In addition, the upcoming All-Atlantic Ocean Research and Innovation Alliance in Cape Town on 21-22 November 2023 will provide an opportunity to build on and address the identified linkages, knowledge gaps and joint recommendations. 

Meanwhile, a group of marine, social and legal science researchers across the Hub are working on a joint paper exploring how to contextual the global goals on marine biodiversity in South Africa, taking into account different knowledge systems and human rights considerations. This paper will include some of the insights arising from the August workshop.

Hub researchers will continue to support more participatory approaches in ocean research, planning and governance and will build on this initial success of developing a community of practice for science to policy success.