Department of Science and Technology

29 January 2016                 

10:30 for 11:00     

Two Oceans Aquarium, Cape Town

I have the pleasure to launch the South African Marine Research and Exploration Forum (SAMREF) and to sign a memorandum of understanding between the DST and the Offshore Petroleum Association of South Africa (OPASA).

In 2014, President Zuma launched Operation Phakisa in Durban. The first segment of Operation Phakisa focused on the blue economy and aimed to unlock the potential of our country's vast marine resources. With 3 000 km of coastline, we are a major maritime nation. We live close to water and look to the sea, estuaries and rivers for food, jobs, energy, transport, recreation and tourism. Marine resources unlocked have the potential to increase the GDP contribution of the marine sector by more than R20 billion over five years. The four critical focus areas of Operation Phakisa are marine transport and manufacturing, offshore oil and gas exploration, aquaculture, and marine protections services and governance.

It's the second critical area, offshore oil and gas exploration, that we are here, in this magnificent aquarium, to promote.

Government's priority now, in the global economic crisis we face, is to promote better co-operation between business and government.

Business and government need to work together to increase South Africa's gross expenditure on research and development from the current 0,7% of GDP to 1,5% by 2019.  While the target is ambitious, we are committed to achieving it.

We are here to mark a new step in our already globally recognised marine research.

The South African coastal and marine environment is one our most important assets. It plays the major role in regulating our climate, has tremendous natural biodiversity and supports numerous communities through fisheries, tourism and mining.

Yet the marine environment is the most threatened of all on earth at this point in time. Marine resources are under increasing stress and pressures from a wide range of human activities, including offshore drilling and oil spills. And global warming is affecting the marine environment with sometimes devastating consequences for people – as when widespread coral bleaching occurred following extraordinary high sea temperatures.

The whole of the South African coast - from the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean to the rich kelp forests of the Atlantic - is one of the richest and most biologically diverse marine environments on Earth. The Benguela Current, off our west coast, supports large quantities of fish, while the Mozambique Current, off our east coast, has a smaller quantity of fish, but a greater diversity of species.

The diversity of life is crucial to our health, wealth and well-being.

We can and must cherish the marine world.

Science and technology initiatives to support and conserve our rich biodiversity have been a major area of focus for the Department of Science and Technology.

Two of the National Research Foundation's national facilities specialise in marine research - the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), famous for the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme or ACEP.

SAEON, established in 2002 jointly by the research community and several government departments, has grown from strength to strength. It's unique as a network organisation, standing in the middle of the Earth Observation arena and functioning as an agent of government at large. Its neutral position among all the participants and stakeholders is key to its continued growth and success.

SAEON draws on research competencies in hydrology, water quality, eco-physiology, soil sciences, conservation biology, botany, zoology, marine sciences, limnology, climatology and meteorology, fresh water ecology, human ecology, environmental information systems, palaeo-ecology, biogeography, pollution and environmental modelling.

Research facilities available at the nodes include field-based apparatus for assessing and monitoring flora, fauna, soil and the atmosphere. There are also laboratories for conducting bio-physical and chemical tests on environmental phenomena. Other facilities include hardware and software for data processing, generating data products for stakeholders, and data archiving.

The other national facility with a marine focus is the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. SAIAB’s research scope spans aquatic biodiversity from genes to ecosystems. Disciplines include systematics and taxonomy; phylogenetics and phylogeography; ecology; physical and biological oceanography; marine palaeo-climates; remote sensing; coastal biodiversity; conservation planning; environmental education; and deepwater biodiversity. The geographical focus of projects extends with declining priority from South Africa through southern Africa to the African continent.

The SAIAB manages and stores the leading African aquatic research library (Margaret Smith Library). It also hosts the SAEON Elwandle Node for long-term monitoring and research on coastal and inshore marine ecosystems. The Node provides long-term monitoring and research sites and data sets as well as an outboard-driven marine research boat.

In closing, let me say that South Africa is justly proud of its marine and oceans research. Our role in the Department of Science and Technology is to promote science and technology to advance growth and development in a sustainable manner. But we cannot fulfil our mandate without engagement with other bodies, both within and outside of government, as well as internationally. We participate in various interdepartmental fora, some with direct bearing on Environmental Science such as the Committee for Environmental Coordination, the Climate site2016 Committee and others. Apart from participating on boards of a number of science councils, it is our responsibility to take the lead in and to support the establishment of scientific infrastructure and new directions, of which SAEON is an excellent example. Some other examples are the South African Large Telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, various Centres of Excellence, the South African Biodiversity Information Facility and the South African National Antarctic Programme. The latter two examples are of collaborative efforts with the Department of Environmental Affairs and its South African National Biodiversity Institute.

I anticipate that our agreement with the Offshore Petroleum Association of South Africa (OPASA) will lead to exciting new research opportunities and discoveries.