Participating in seismic shifts in ocean research and advocacy collaboration in South Africa

By Jackie Sunde

Demonstrators objecting Shell’s seismic survey at the Wild Coast in South Africa in December 2021. Photo: Dylan McGarry

Over the past two months One Ocean Hub researchers in South Africa have made a significant transdisciplinary contribution towards ensuring that the best available scientific evidence, socio-ecological knowledge, and human-rights based environmental governance contribute to determine whether two planned seismic surveys should be undertaken along the coastline. The applications for these surveys reflect a growing interest in offshore oil and gas exploration in South Africa, supported by the Ocean Economy policy introduced by former President Zuma in 2014. Significantly, it came to the surface few weeks after the UN Climate Summit “COP26”, when “the EU and a coalition of Western countries pledged a total of $8.5 billion over the next 5 years to mobilize South Africa’s decarbonization efforts.”

The combined efforts of One Ocean Hub researchers across an array of disciplines and research expertise, together with other key stakeholders and social partners, has enabled the emergence of new and exciting understandings of the interaction of very complex ecological, social, economic and governance aspects that are triggered in the context of a seismic survey undertaken in a country grappling with the challenge of balancing economic development goals with environmental sustainability and social justice. This blog post maps the evolving collaborations and insights arising from this process in South Africa.

Seismic survey application

In November 2021, it came to the attention of the public that Shell and its local partner, IMPACT Africa would be commencing a seismic survey along the Indian Ocean coastline, in the iconic ‘Wild Coast’ region, activating an exploration right that was granted in 2013 and subsequently renewed twice. This region is renowned for its exceptional biodiversity, stunningly beautiful coastal environment and rich cultural heritage. Marine scientists, fisheries experts and small-scale fishers alike were immediately concerned, as very few people had known about the application for this right and none of the small-scale fishing communities who would be considered interested and affected parties had been consulted.  Within an exceptionally short space of time, an application for an urgent interdict to stop the seismic survey from commencing on 1 December was launched by two local recreational angling clubs, with support from a leading environmental law firm and several non-governmental organisations. The applicants indicated their intention to also lodge a review of the decision by the Minister of Minerals and Energy on the grounds that Shell had been granted this exploration right without undertaking an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Instead, the company had developed an Environmental Management Plan (EMP), which included mitigation measures that were considered outdated and had failed to consult the applicants adequately. 

One Ocean Hub transdisciplinary research and community partnerships in action: first application for an interdict

The Coastal Justice Network (CJN), a network initiated during the onset of the COVID lockdown by a group of One Ocean Hub researchers working specifically with small-scale fisheries in South Africa, immediately joined a growing group of academics, researchers, activists, fisher leaders and South Africans citizens who were calling on the Minister of Minerals and Energy and the Minister of Fisheries, Forestry and the Environment to suspend the seismic survey. Drawing on research conducted by One Ocean Hub over the past two years, the CJN, together with several individual researchers and academics, documented their concerns over the inadequate consideration of evidence of the impacts on fisheries and species of specific conservation concern, lack of adequate consultation, and failure to consider socio-cultural aspects, including intangible cultural heritage amongst others. These concerns and supporting evidence were included in a letter from CJN was included as an annexure to the Founding Affidavit.

This court application failed because the Judge considered that the applicants had not demonstrated that the survey would cause irreparable harm to the ocean and marine environment.  

Engaging in multiple ways to contribute inter-disciplinary evidence for the second application for an interdict

Within a very short space of time, in consultation with the first team of lawyers, a second application for an urgent interim interdict, to stop the survey, to be followed by a review, was launched by a firm of attorneys and the Legal Resources Centre, an organisation that undertakes human rights litigation on behalf of a local non-profit environmental organisation and several small-scale fishing communities and fishers. This group of fishers included three fishers who are active participants in the CJN Small-scale Fisher leaders’ WhatsApp group.

CJN researchers assisted the legal team in developing the affidavits for these fishers, drawing on Hub and other research on small-scale fisheries, fishing communities’ human rights, and intangible cultural and spiritual heritage undertaken by CJN members at Rhodes University Environmental Learning Research Centre (ELRC) and the University of Cape Town Environmental and Geographical Sciences (EGS) Small-scale Fisheries Research Group. The applicants argued that not only had Shell failed to undertake an EIA and obtain environmental authorisation, but it had also failed to fulfil the requirements for adequate consultation and, in so doing, had violated the fishers’ human rights to fair procedural and administrative action, and their cultural rights. A member of the CJN provided an expert affidavit on the customary fishing rights and cultural rights of one of the affected communities living adjacent to the seismic survey area.  Embedded in this affidavit, reflecting the mix of knowledges, disciplines and artistic media in the Hub, was a link to three One Ocean Hub artistic outputs highlighting intangible heritage, eco-cultural values and the deep emotional and spiritual connections that span the near-shore and off-shore ocean environment:

  • An illustrated short film based on the trandsciplinary theatre-based research Lalela uLwandle (“Listen to the Sea” in isiZulu) that makes visible stories of those living with the ocean that are seldom seen or heard in the public domain
  • An animated poem written from the perspective of the ocean: “The Blue Blanket
  • An animation on the soul’s journey through the oceans in Zulu traditional ancestral belief, that is remarkably similar to the scientific idea of the water lifecycle – lndlela Yokuphila

Two Hub researchers assisted in identifying marine scientists, acoustic and fisheries experts, who were willing to contribute expert statements and comment on the extent to which the Shell’s EMP report and mitigation measures responded to the best available scientific evidence. The relationships emerging within and outside the Hub across different research teams and disciplines greatly deepened our understanding of the transformative potential of interdisciplinarity and of the kind of interactions that foster cooperation for change. Eight South African and two international expert scientific submissions were submitted to the court, documenting the latest scientific information and a resounding call for a precautionary approach.  One of these included a Hub fisheries expert.

At the same time, two Hub researchers contributed to an open letter to the President, and Ministers of Mineral Resources and Energy as well as Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, highlighting their concerns about the impacts of pursuing the seismic survey and calling for a moratorium on seismic surveys until a strategic environmental assessment had been completed. Another Hub researcher, contributed to an advisory published by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) on the potential impacts of seismic surveys on the marine environment, also stressing the importance of a more holistic and inclusive approach to environmental assessments prior to decision-making.

Progress towards evidence-based, equitable and sustainable ocean governance: the judgment on the second application

The judgement in this second application for an urgent interim interdict, delivered on 28th December 2022, found in favour of the applicants. There are three notable aspects in the decision that bode well for more evidence-based, equitable and sustainable ocean governance.

  • First, the judge considered the evidence of the ten experts and the applicants’ arguments had established a reasonable concern of irreparable harm to marine life.
  • Second, the judge found that the consultation with the local coastal communities had been inadequate and ‘substantially flawed’. 
  • Third and linked to the second point, the judge recognized, for the first time in a court in South Africa, the intangible spiritual and cultural beliefs of the small-scale fishing communities pertaining to the sacredness of the ocean as the home of their ancestors. Confirming the evidence presented on the cultural practices of the community, and their spiritual relationship with the ocean, the judge made special mention of the Constitutional obligation to respect the cultural beliefs and practices of the applicant fisher communities.

Building collaborative, socially responsive, and human rights-based evidence for change: more seismic survey applications

No sooner was the ink dry on the judgement in this case, than a notice circulated on social media of the intention of an Australian company, SEARCHER GEODATA, to commence a 2D and 3D seismic survey off a huge section of the West Coast of South Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. The proposed survey area overlaps with the prime fishing grounds of the small-scale and commercial fishing industry and lies adjacent to 30 small-scale fishing communities who had no knowledge of the application for a permit to conduct this survey. Whilst the company states that it underwent an exhaustive consultation process, none of these fishing communities were consulted. 

Drawing on the extensive networking and growing collaboration between several key non-governmental groups working with small-scale fishing communities around the country, including the CJN, the Legal Resources Centre committed to represent the small-scale fisheries sector again and to launch an application for an urgent interdict in this case. CJN researchers, working collaboratively with other NGOs, most notably Masifundise and Green Connection, participated in five online meetings with the fisher leaders and the legal team, documenting the fishers’ evidence and contributing towards identifying key socio-economic and cultural evidence of importance.

The work of CJN and other partners in South Africa over the years on developing a human-rights based approach to small-scale fisheries and understanding the inequities and power imbalances but also strengths of these fishers greatly assisted the CJN researchers and the legal team in quickly identifying the key issues at stake:

  • the failure to consult adequately,
  • the incorrect characterisation of small-scale fisheries,
  • the failure to identify cumulative impacts in the impact assessment, as well as the likely consequences of these failures; and
  • most notably, the risk of a violation of the human right to food, the human right to practice one’s culture, and the human right to fair and just administrative action.

One of the CJN team members crafted eight of the fisher affidavits, enabling the LRC attorney to then weave in the legal arguments. Meanwhile, the CJN team worked very closely with the fisher communities throughout: constantly posting on the SSF fisher leaders’ WhatsApp group information about SEARCHER’s application and the technicalities of the surveys; explaining the legal process and issues; developing simple, accessible materials that could be posted via WhatsApp and shared amongst the fishers; and, drawing on the issues they voiced on the WhatsApp group, supported the fishers in developing statements for the media.

In addition, the One Ocean Hub researchers worked closely with other social partners assisting the lawyers in identifying a range of marine science experts. Three One Ocean Hub scientists agreed to prepare expert statements, one highlighting ocean ecosystem interactions and impacts, one focusing on fisheries evidence and potential harms, and one on cumulative impacts. Another Hub researcher prepared an affidavit examining the SEARCHER EMP and Fisheries Impact Assessment from a transdisciplinary perspective of the small-scale fishers.

Two of the Hub researchers were able to act as intermediaries, helping to identify the links between the scientific data on the ocean system and marine species and the socio-ecological data on the small-scale fisheries. At times two of the Hub experts helped to identify the lack of evidence, contradictions and the weaknesses in some of the possible arguments that were floated by the CJN team, which in turn helped them to guide the attorneys developing the legal arguments, using concrete examples that straddled the disciplinary knowledge systems represented across the expert team. What emerged in the final bundle of papers submitted to court on 21st January 2022 was a rich, ecosystem of knowledges, criss-crossing the deep and finely tuned local and indigenous ecological knowledge of the men and women small-scale fishers, structured, and interlaced with the scientific knowledge of the expert team, that spanned expertise on a range of marine fauna and species of concern, fisheries science, acoustic science and environmental governance.


The outcome of the latest application has yet to be determined. This process, however, has enabled new linkages across the ‘knowledge hubs’ within and outside the One Ocean Hub.  It has contributed greatly to enabling the very valuable research findings of several of the South African One Ocean Hub researchers to find traction on the ground with the fishers and in legal submissions, contributing to ensuring sustainable, equitable ocean governance in South Africa. It has also provided a wealth of experiences about inter- and transdisciplinary collaborations to ensure consideration of inclusive processes in ocean-related decisions.

Researchers across the Hub, including in other countries, are now reflecting on the new insights and practices that have emerged in South Africa in the last two months to refine our transdisciplinary research and engagement plans, and strategize our work across scales. This includes the Hub-UN partnerships on small-scale fishers’ human rights during 2022 –

International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and other international discussions on ocean defenders. It also concerned our planned comparative research and engagement facilitated by the Hub’s Customary Law Network (see also here) to advance thinking on inclusive and integrated EIAs, strategic environmental assessments, and marine spatial planning, and on the role of arts for transformative change.