Marine Science students given an opportunity of a lifetime

At the end of May 2015, the official launch of the “Ocean Stewards Programme” will take place. This will give 15 Marine and Ecological Science students from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to experience catalytic marine science under the guidance of key marine scientists and leading sector managers. The initiative is part of the greater African Coelacanth Ecology Programme (ACEP) which is funded through the National Research Foundation and carries out vital marine research off the South African coastline.

With ongoing development locally and globally, our marine environments are under increasing threat. Overfishing is exacerbated by habitat degradation (often linked to seabed mining, the oil and gas industry and trawling), alternative energy requirements, pollution, aquaculture, invasive alien species, acidification and climate change.

The health and prosperity of future generations depends on halting this negative trend, and recognising the crucial role that healthy oceans play in providing essential ecosystem services such as food and oxygen, and buffering coastal communities against increased intensity storms. In addition, many coastal communities are impoverished and extremely vulnerable to further degradation of the natural systems on which they depend directly. Unfortunately, there remains a profound lack of public understanding about the crucial link between human prosperity and healthy marine ecosystems and their species. Development must be allowed to continue but with proactive input from marine ecologists.

In South Africa, the ability to meet these challenges and provide practical solutions is being compromised by insufficient human capacity within the marine science and conservation management sectors. This is exacerbated by a paucity of accessible infrastructure to conduct science, effective governance and law enforcement. These shortfalls are linked to slow transformation, lack of career-guidance at schools, and the fact that very few undergraduate marine science students continue on to post-graduate level. Furthermore, owing to the lack of affordable ship-based platforms, most students who do complete marine science degrees have limited ocean fieldwork experience.

The Ocean Stewards Programme aims to address this key challenge by providing catalytic marine science, management and industry exposure to a new generation of emerging Ocean Stewards. The 2015 cadre of Ocean Stewards consists of 12 undergraduate marine ecology university students, and three Honours level marine science students. The selection process placed emphasis on selecting students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Ocean Stewards element of the greater programme has been enabled through the Blue Fund, a partnership established between Grindrod and Wildlands (a leading environmental NPO) which aims to fund vital marine and coastal conservation work. Through this funding, the 15 students will take part in a formative, experiential journey that will give them unique insights into marine conservation and inspire them to pursue marine science as a career. They will also be mentored by the one PhD and three masters students who are currently funded through ACEP and SANBI.

Students will also be given the opportunity to compete for one of three post-graduate bursaries through ACEP.  These bursaries will allow 3rd year students to undertake their Honours studies in 2015, and two of these students will be offered further support to proceed to an MSc level. Wildlands and Grindrod hope to expand their bursary support through Grindrod Limited’s Skills Development activities.

The cost of implementing the Ocean Stewards programme for 2015 is just under R1 million. ACEP has committed R 582 000 towards the costs of the programme, with emphasis on underwriting the expedition and research related costs. The Blue Fund has committed a further R 400 000 to enable the actual Ocean Steward engagement, support and mentorship process. It is supported by a mentorship team including many of South Africa’s pre-eminent Marine Scientists. “There are very strong partnerships behind this program,” said Wildlands’ CEO Dr Andrew Venter. “Wildlands are very excited to be part of this professional team consisting of Grindrod Limited, ACEP and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife representatives. We all share a vision for the youth of this country and look forward to assisting them in igniting positive change within the marine sector.”