#03 2020

Valuing our oceans – A Novel Ocean Accounts Framework for South Africa

By Nicole du Plessis, SAEON Egagasini Node and Hannah Truter, Nelson Mandela University

Our oceans are increasingly under pressure due to human impacts such as overfishing and pollution.

Various management practices, tools and strategies are continuously being developed to manage the ocean and coastal space more effectively for the benefit of all. These include marine spatial planning, ecosystem-based management, sustainable ocean economies and natural capital accounting.

The field of natural capital accounting is gaining prominence globally as countries strive to develop the means to value their natural environments and resources to incorporate these into their governance practices.

Natural capital accounting focuses on measuring the value of ecosystem services, i.e. the benefits that humans derive from nature, to include this value in the “wealth” of a nation. Benefits derived from nature include easily valued services such as food production (e.g. fisheries traded on open markets), slightly more difficult services to value such as flood protection (e.g. what it would cost to replace housing or infrastructure in a certain area if buffer zones such as coastal dunes and wetlands are removed), and the much more difficult to value cultural services (e.g. is it possible to put a value to a certain important spiritual or heritage area? Is the willingness to pay to gain access to a nature reserve a fair indicator of the importance of the reserve?).

Currently countries use metrics such as gross domestic product (GDP – the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country within one year) to measure their economic success. However, this is a limited way of looking at the development of a country, as it focuses on economic value only and does not provide any information on social development and the environments on which societal well-being and many industries depend.

A common anecdote for valuing natural resources is this one for wild-caught fisheries: a country could catch and sell all its fish within a year and the GDP would look great, but the following year there would be nothing left to fish, impacting jobs and food security. However, the GDP could still be the same or could increase if another sector has done well.

Natural capital accounting recognises the value nature provides with the aim of keeping track of natural resources (or stocks) to better inform management strategies and trade-offs.

Ocean accounts

Ocean accounts fall under the much larger framework of the United Nations-developed System of Environmental and Economic Accounts 2003 (SEEA 2003), and the more recent System of Environmental-Economic Accounting 2012: Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (developed to provide a more holistic assessment of ecosystems), which sets out how to incorporate ecosystem services into (economic) national accounting systems in a comparable manner for all countries.

Ocean accounts are still under development with the Global Ocean Accounts Partnership (led by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) drafting a technical document to set out a standardised methodology for countries to develop their ocean accounts. Building on previous accounting frameworks and the recognition of environmental integrity for human existence, the ocean accounts are being developed to be inclusive of economic, social and environmental factors.

Communities of Practice – Ocean Accounts Framework

Capitalising on the networks created through the South African Indian Ocean Rim Association Academic Group (SA IORAG), the Secretariat requested expressions of interest from members of the SA IORAG community to develop a proposal to submit for a National Research Foundation (NRF) Communities of Practice call. This led to a proposal to develop the Ocean Accounts Framework in South Africa (phase 1) and within the Western Indian Ocean Region (phase 2; dependent on the success of phase 1 and further support of the NRF).

The community of practice aims to assess the applicability of the Ocean Accounts Framework in the Western Indian Ocean as a central component of a wider strategy to ensure ocean governance contributes as optimally as possible to the broader sustainable development goals of South Africa and the IORA member states of the Western Indian Ocean by ensuring the inclusivity, safety, security and sustainability of coastal communities.

During phase one (2020–2021) the project objectives focus on investigating the efficiency and relevance of the Ocean Accounts Framework in implementing ocean policy and applying ocean-governance instruments. The risks and vulnerabilities associated with climate change, food security and unsustainable development are also investigated, as well as the role of gender in the Ocean Accounts Framework through disaggregation of data.

The community of practice is led by Professor Patrick Vrancken (of Nelson Mandela University) as the principal investigator. To address the major knowledge gaps arising from the introduction and development of the Ocean Accounts Framework, the community of practice has been divided into seven work packages. Each package focuses on various aspects within the Framework that include scientists across several research disciplines and from institutes including Nelson Mandela University, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, SAEON, University of the Western Cape and the Human Sciences Research Council.

Several aspects of this project have been identified as key to the development of the Ocean Accounts Framework in South Africa. These include the integration of data (standardisation) across disciplines, the sustainability of ocean governance, inclusivity, providing a deeper understanding of the existing environmental accounts and developing novel accounts applicable to South Africa that can be applied to similar countries.

Community of practice members include Prof Patrick Vrancken, Dr Bernadette Snow, Prof Janine Adams, Prof Mike Roberts, Prof Ken Findlay, Prof Joleen Steyn Kotze, Mr Johan Spamer, Prof Juliet Hermes, Prof Tommy Bornman, Dr Hennie Van As, Dr Anusha Rajkaran, Prof Rose Boswell, Prof Joanna Botha, Ms Ernesta Swanepoel, Prof Andrea Hurst, Prof Narnia Bohler-Muller, Ms Nicole Du Plessis and Ms Sarah Taylor. The list may increase as the project develops in collaboration with data holders and stakeholders crucial to the process.

Keep an eye out for updates as the project progresses.

Our oceans are increasingly under pressure due to human impacts such as overfishing and pollution (Picture: Pixabay)

Natural capital accounting recognises the value nature provides (Picture: unsplash)