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Scientists call for systemic change in Marine Environmental Assessment

Oceans Not Oil hails an advisory produced by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf)’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) on THE USE OF DEEP-SEA SEISMIC SURVEYS TO EXPLORE FOR OIL AND GAS DEPOSITS IN SOUTH AFRICAN WATERS. In the scope of SAGE’s mandate, an “emergency” is defined as “a serious, unexpected, and potentially dangerous situation that has either already caused loss of life, health detriments, property damage, or environmental damage, or has a high probability of escalating to cause immediate danger to life, health, property, or the environment”[1].

A group of 11 leading scientists have endorsed the challenge met by Sustaining the Wild Coast and communities’ recent court interdict against Shell (Shell Exploration and Production South Africa BV, Impact Africa Ltd, and BG International Ltd) – that of proving irreparable harm – and have gone further to call on government for a systemic change to the environmental assessment process – one based on up-to-date, and local-scale science.

The summary produced by the sub-committee on Marine Ecology and Risk Mitigation (authored by Aliza le Roux, Jerome Amir Singh, Isabelle Ansorge, Tommy Bornman, Simon Elwen, Louise Gammage, Sershen Naidoo, Anusha Rajkaran, Patrick Vrancken, Pradeep Kumar, and Marizvikuru Manjoro) claimed that seismic survey airgun technology is outdated (50+years old), dangerous and urged government to look to alternate sources of energy.

The Shell survey, and now the West Coast applications by Searcher Geodata UK Limited (Searcher) (permit area 297 089 km2) and Spectrum Geo Limited (Spectrum) (permit area 180 000 km2), stretching from the Namibian border along the entire West Coast up to 200 km southwest of Cape Point, required no Environmental Authorisation when applying for a Reconnaissance Permit when they were submitted. All 3 applications have simply produced an Environmental Management Plan (EMP). Searcher has applied for a Reconnaissance Permit in terms of Section 74, specifically, of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (No. 28 of 2002) (MPRDA) thus differing importantly in that they do not have to do a full EIA in terms of National Environmental Management Act for their permit

Also of grave concern to ONO is that both the Spectrum survey and the Searcher survey are in the same region of ocean, surrounded by Marine Protected Areas, fish spawning sites important to commercial fisheries, Cape fur seal colonies and penguin foraging sites. Both seal and penguin colonies have been under duress from disease and diminishing food supplies in recent years. Cumulative effects of the combined surveys on these colonies and fisheries have the potential for long term impacts. Both surveys are proposed for summer 2021-2022 and will last 5 months (see the summaries of these two separate applications below).

SAGE sub-committee states that “EMPs should never be considered a valid and legitimate substitute for comprehensive EIA reports.” It exhorts the South African government, “to convene a task team to evaluate and improve our current domestic legislation. More specifically, the authority of the Department of Mineral Resource and Energy (DMRE) to exclusively issue exploration permits without the concurrence of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE), and therefore should be revoked. Only a holistic approach to marine oversight will ensure the sustainable use of our natural resources while also encouraging and supporting tourism, local livelihoods, environmental health, and the maintenance of ecosystem services. Such a task team should also note:

  • Decisions that concern the marine environment cannot and should not be made by a single government department as the complex and integrated nature of marine systems demand a more integrative decision-making process amongst all stakeholders. Interdepartmental cooperation and considerations need to be mandated, bringing together the DFFE, DMRE, their affiliated entities, e.g., the South African National Biodiversity Institute, as well as conservation agencies. 
  • EIAs should be mandated before exploration of natural resources, including those explorations that lead to noise (‘energy’) pollution, not only pollution in the form of waste products and toxins. This follows the NEMA guidelines that mandate EIAs for “any process or activity which requires a permit or license in terms of legislation governing the generation or release of emissions, pollution, effluent or waste and which is not identified in GNR. 386 of 2006”. The scale and scope of monitoring activities should consider the multi-scalar dimensions of the marine system. 
  • The process of EIAs should be revised to ensure a more a proactive, systems-based approach, including direct and indirect stakeholders. Such an approach to EIAs is necessary given the unique, integrated nature of the marine ecosystem which includes a multitude of temporal and spatial scales. Such proactive, inclusive approaches are necessary to ensure that negative effects on the marine ecosystem and the people who depend on it are properly accounted for and sufficiently mitigated.“

Given that the Academy’s Advisory Group on Emergencies finds it requisite to publish this advisory gives a sense of their apprehension of “real harm” by seismic surveys and the lack of legislative due diligence along our coastline. 

Please see the similarities and hence our concerns for cumulative impacts in Searcher and Spectrum’s multi-client survey EMPs below.


[1] Academy of Science of South Africa. Available at: https://www.assaf.org.za/index.php/2-uncategorised/847-scientific-advisory-group-for-emergencies-sage (Accessed: 11 January 2022 )

One thought on “Scientists call for systemic change in Marine Environmental Assessment Leave a comment

  1. We need to protect our coastal waters and marine life at all costs, and not to bow down to our government who have by their actions to date have clearly shown that they do not care for the people of this country nor the environment and are of the opinion that they can continue to rape this country in any way they can. The same is said for the big oil companies.

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