How SA uses geospatial technology for coastal and ocean surveillance

A marine and coastal surveillance program implemented by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is proving successful, and as the multi-stakeholder program moves into its next phase, it aims to have even greater impact.

The system was designed by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) to derive ocean knowledge from existing observations and data suitable for use by stakeholders and to make ocean knowledge more accessible to the public.

The project, conducted in partnership with the DFFE and many other key stakeholders including the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), has made extensive progress in monitoring the oceans and coasts as teams work together to develop solutions , which have not only been able to help citizens, but protect the country’s 3,200 km of coastline, make a positive contribution to the economy and curb illegal activities at sea through the use of technology.

Commissioned by the then Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), the CSIR, as part of its e-government sphere of influence, researched, developed and implemented the Ocean and Coastal Information System (OCIMS) in 2016, which is part of the Operation Phakisa Marine Protection Services and Oceans Governance Workstream Initiative 6: National Ocean and Coastal Information System and Extending Earth Observation Capability.

In accordance with the then DEA and Phakisa’s mandate, the CSIR leveraged its existing advanced technology stack for spatial data and continued to work with various stakeholders as part of Operation Phakisa to begin the very first implementation of the OCIMS, says the head of the CSIR Research Group on Spatial Information Systems Sives Govender.

According to CSIR, OCIMS applies satellite remote sensing and geospatial information; provides operational wide-area surveillance; and leverages information products to support and enhance decision making for the management of South Africa’s 1.5 million square meter Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and coastline.

OCIMS involves the integration of data, data processing, data analysis, visualization, reporting and alerting to identify, monitor and predict events and threats effectively and efficiently, with end users including government, industry, such as aquaculture, oil and gas exploration; and public users involved in recreational activities.

“The range of things that need to be done in relation to the oceans is endless, from maritime safety, pollution reduction, monitoring and climate variability to biodiversity loss,” says Dr Marjolaine Krug.

“The main purpose of OCIMS is really to provide a platform where we can make the data we collect available to the public and stakeholders and use that data to generate better knowledge and therefore make better decisions,” she explains.

Govender explains that the use of geotechnology is necessary to have an overview of what is happening across the vast coastal area and the responses required, as well as the need to determine future trends that will allow government to develop policies to mitigate potential challenges and find possible solutions.

“In the beginning, one of the big things we wanted to do was set up a repository or archive of all earth observation data that is in government agencies, because every government agency has data that may be very valuable but is not shared or there is no mechanism for sharing”, CSIR Principal Project Manager Riette Pretorius says.

Pretorius explains that the project evolved from a few technical demonstrations that showed the possibilities, value and impact of these technologies on everyday work to the development of systems with a large stakeholder group that included the DFFE, the State Security Agency, environmental agencies , aquaculture agencies, fisheries and local government through various technical advisory groups.

she says Engineering News & Mining Weekly that it allows an eagle’s-eye view of an area large enough to make decisions without having to send people or ships out to sea.

The multi-stakeholder project, which has been running for almost a decade, has provided, among others, several decision support tools tailored to coastal flood hazards, fisheries and aquaculture, marine area awareness, marine spatial planning, sea state and water quality, with plans to further build on develop priorities. the maturity of existing tools and according to an agreed technology roadmap.

The impact has been significant so far, with a focus on early warning support for harmful algal bloom detection and oil spill detection; operational support for small or large ships planning operations at sea; compliance with and enforcement of regulation of fisheries, vessel tracking and pollution control; and planning and assessment support for marine spatial planning.

“They can literally monitor the ocean and the ships entering our EEZ and make decisions about where there are potential risks and even how to mitigate, say, severe storms.”

Pretorius refers to an integrated vessel tracking tool used operationally on a daily basis, mainly by the security cluster departments and fisheries, to monitor the EEZ and verify which vessels are entering, their speed and what they have been doing.

It is a very effective tool that is having a massive impact in curbing illegal entry into South Africa.

She cites examples where the OCIMS integrated vessel tracking tool helped track vessels fishing in marine protected areas that were subsequently caught and successfully fined for fishing in illegal waters.

Another decision support tool is the Aquaculture Support Tool, which can detect and size such events, among other damaging red tide events.

A red tide event in 2015 caused a R114 million march in lobster stocks.

However, with the support tool, the CSIR can now work with local governments, law enforcement and environmental agencies if they anticipate such an event, Pretorius comments.

Krug adds that if conditions for aquaculture improve and they don’t lose stocks to red tides, more money can be invested in growth.

In addition, a harmful algal bloom in 2017 caused losses to aquaculture farms of over R50 million; However, the aquaculture and fisheries support tool can monitor and predict these events.

“We have started to identify these blooms, identify risks and actively monitor them,” Pretorius continues.

In 2019, a similar bloom resulted in no fatalities, which can be attributed to improved farm mitigation measures and information from the Aquaculture and Fisheries tool on bloom location and operational planning.

There is also close collaboration with the National Sea Rescue Institute, where the CSIR, together with the South African Meteorological Service, have developed a tool to quickly calculate a search area in the event someone falls overboard or is lost at sea.

Various navigational aids are used when calculating a search area, taking into account sea state, wind direction and currents, which traditionally took about 20 minutes.

“We have developed a program on one of our service decision support tools that can perform this calculation in less than a minute.”

In the second phase, the CSIR aims not only to deepen its expertise and technology, but also to use some of the newer developments and to reach out to South Africa’s neighbors.

“We have also started working on the water quality. It’s one of our less mature or new services that we’re starting now, and we hope it will have a massive impact over the next year or two,” says Krug.

Another development is the construction of ocean models around Algoa Bay and the Cape Peninsula in collaboration with the South African Environmental Observation Network or SAEON to provide simulations of ocean currents, temperature and salinity in three dimensions and produce a forecast five days in Ahead, she adds.

According to Govender, the prioritization focuses on what a community needs most and works with input from experts on short-, medium- and long-term goals driven by community needs and legislative requirements.

“It’s about how we solve South Africa’s problems?”

“The bottom line is we have to respond to national priorities, where can you make the most difference, and then try to prioritize development around that,” Krug adds.

She also points to a major advantage as OCIMS offers more visible opportunities.

People can use the data to develop new tools in the fields or sectors they work in, while non-governmental organizations can use the data to better understand the environment.

Krug says that while the system is funded by Operation Phakisa and marine conservation and governance initiatives, as well as the DSI and the DFFE, there are departments that may not directly contribute financially to the project, but they do share data and make it available , which is a significant improvement for the system.

The more data, the better the system and provides better decision support.

“We don’t just work in isolation. We welcome anyone who wants to contribute and help grow the system, because it’s not about us. It’s really about working better with the ocean.”

According to Govender, it allows for the development of technical capabilities – unique skills in a very specialized field – while protecting the coasts of South Africa – and the rest of Africa.

The CSIR is also working with the African Union to expand the project to the broader Southern Africa region.

“The work we do on OCIMS benefits not only us as a country, but the continent as well.”

Many African countries have limited budgets and physical coastal surveillance, leaving them with only earth observation and spatial information system tools that can help them with remote monitoring and tracking.

“We still think we’re scratching the surface, but I think we still have a lot of good work to do and a big impact.”

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