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Mapping Patterns and Drivers of Marine Resource Conflicts to Guide Solutions

July 22, 2021
Struisbaai Harbor (Wikimedia Commons)

Off the coast of Struisbaai, South Africa, just a few miles from the southernmost point of the continent, the holiday season brings tension for local fishers. Recreational boaters, with large vessels, fishing permits, and time off of work, crowd the launch ramp throughout the day, which makes it difficult for locals to access the harbor. By the time local fishers make it out to the water, it’s late in the afternoon, which limits catch and income.

This is just one example of marine resource conflicts playing out across the region and the world. Marine resources play important roles in creating more sustainable food systems, securing livelihoods, and preserving cultural traditions. At the same time, the coastal zone is experiencing rapid population growth, increased pressure on traditional sectors like fisheries, and expansion of new commercial sectors including aquaculture, wind and wave energy, and tourism. Such shifts in resource use, management, and access can lead to conflicts over marine resources. Yet, the reasons behind these conflicts are poorly understood.

COS deputy director Elizabeth Selig and lead scientist Colette Wabnitz are working with an international team of partners to better understand drivers of and solutions for marine resource conflicts. The project “Mapping marine resource conflicts across sub-Saharan Africa: patterns, drivers and solutions for coastal communities” (MARICA), coordinated by the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), seeks to develop the first systematic, multi-scale assessment of marine resource conflicts across regional and local scales. Selig and Wabnitz lead regional efforts to develop a novel database of incidents of marine resource conflicts across sub-Saharan Africa. Local case studies are led by the University of the Western Cape Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS/UWC) in South Africa, the University of Ghana in Ghana, and the Wildlife Conservation Society in Kenya.

Here, Selig, Wabnitz, and project partners from UWC and NIVA discuss emerging insights from the MARICA project and why understanding drivers of marine resource conflicts can guide more just management and policy solutions.


In this research, how do you define marine resource conflicts?

Selig: We're defining marine resource conflicts as an incompatibility in goals for how marine resources should be used or accessed. People hear of marine resource conflicts and often think only about fisheries, but examples run the gamut. These conflicts could be a disagreement over the development of a port or conflicts over sand mining.

Wabnitz: Along with conflicts over resource exploitation, conflicts can also be related to conservation or management measures. You might have the introduction of a protected area without adequate or inclusive (i.e. neglecting women or Indigenous groups, for example) community engagement and consultation. Limiting access to resources can also cause conflicts.

Why is it important to study, map and understand the spatial patterns and drivers of marine resource conflicts?

Frode Sundnes (NIVA): Marine and coastal resources are under pressure, especially with the increasing emphasis on harnessing the range of possibilities of a blue economy. These conflicts are an impediment to food security, sustainable harvesting and just distribution of benefits, and if unresolved are obstacles to realizing several Sustainable Development Goals. By exploring patterns and drivers we hope to identify possible mechanisms for resolving coastal and marine conflicts and pathways to more sustainable resource management. In the MARICA project we focus on sub-Saharan Africa, but we envision that our results will have broader relevance for marine resource management in other regions.

Do patterns and drivers of marine resource conflicts shift based on scale?

Selig: That’s one of our key questions. If we look at marine resource conflicts at national and subnational scales, are we going to see different things? What might a global dataset miss related to context, governance, or identity that would become more apparent at a more local scale?

Wabnitz: Issues of scale will definitely be critical as well as different systems of governance, keeping in mind that conflict is not always negative. Conflicts — if approached ‘right’ through inclusive participation and consultation — can be opportunities to air concerns, define why goals are not compatible, and find alignment. Therefore, addressing marine resource conflicts can help develop models for better governance. It will be interesting to see how these models compare to global scales.

How do you map these conflicts? What information do you rely on?

Selig: We’re using a technique common in conflict studies, which is to look at reports from periodical literature to identify conflict events. To find relevant articles, we develop a specific search string, like a systematic review.  We try to cover all of the major languages in the area used in media and periodicals. If the article has indicated what led to a conflict, we characterize that as a driver. We also include other indicators — resource health, economic and social contexts, governance approaches — to explore different factors that might contribute to or help to resolve conflicts.

Wabnitz: The search string, its syntax, choice of search terms, is really important to effectively balance sensitivity and specificity of such an exercise. Across languages, marine resources and marine resource conflicts can be translated in slightly different and nuanced ways. It’s a bit of an experiment to get to a point where we could capture everything relevant without having to sift through 60,000 articles from a ten year span.

What have you learned so far from searching through articles?

Selig: We’ve just started analyzing the database, but looking at the initial data visualizations, we see a lot of spatial variability, so some countries have much more conflict than others. There is still a lot to learn about what may be driving those patterns.

Wabnitz: One of the interesting elements of the project right now is thinking about and choosing the variables, or indicators, which might be able to explain conflict over marine resources. That’s been a big effort to start broadly and become more specific to understand which dimensions we may want to focus on, and why, that might be driving the occurrence of conflicts we see in the database. This is a phase of extreme digestion of information, and then we’ll look to decide salient points to share with policymakers and other stakeholders.


Alongside regional database research led by the COS team, local case studies are led by the PLAAS/UWC in South Africa, the University of Ghana in Ghana, and the Wildlife Conservation Society in Kenya. NIVA is coordinating efforts across the case studies. In South Africa, the PLAAS/UWC team focuses on two areas — the Overberg region (Southeast of Cape Town) and the West Coast (Northwest of Cape Town) — which are home to several coastal fishing communities.

How have conflicts over marine resources been playing out in the communities that you have been working with over the last few years?

Tracey Dennis, Frankquit Jooste, Mafaniso Hara and Moenieba Isaacs (PLAAS/UWC): On the West Coast, conflicts over marine resources remain largely unresolved. In the Saldanha Bay — Langebaan Lagoon, for example — there is a tug of war among local small-scale fishers (SSFs) and government, industrial fishing, corporate business, and tourism industries. SSFs feel that the government is not issuing enough fishing permits, and those that it is issuing are going to the wrong actors. The government believes it is addressing the concerns of these fishers through consultation, but the fishers feel betrayed by a lack of access to key fishing spots and continued pollution by industrial vessels. Similarly in Overberg, one issue often mentioned is that the government does not consult SSFs before making rules and regulations which affect them directly. SSFs don’t feel heard or seen by the government.


Langebaan Lagoon (PLAAS/UWC)

Langebaan Lagoon (Mafaniso Hara | PLAAS/UWC)


What have you learned about potential management and policy changes that could reduce marine resource conflicts?

Dennis, Jooste, Hara, and Isaacs (PLAAS/UWC): Several conflicts emerge from a breakdown in communication among SSFs and the government regarding fishing permits and quotas. Greater community participation or co-management, with local leadership represented in decision making, could enhance a sense of ownership and protection over the marine resources. Policies that provide more access rights to SSFs while tightening restrictions on large-scale commercial enterprises and allowing for a trial period to address negative impacts on SSFs could also help reduce conflicts.

Is there an example you can share of a community that worked to introduce some of these changes?

Dennis, Jooste, Hara, and Isaacs (PLAAS/UWC): At this point, there aren’t really examples of these policies. Most participants agreed that while they might be consulted by the government, they are not included in decision making processes or the implementation of marine resource management.

Were there any major surprises in what you learned during your surveys?

Dennis, Jooste, Hara, and Isaacs (PLAAS/UWC): It was surprising how the historical background of South Africa is almost never considered in drafting policies — there are similarities in the outcomes between the old apartheid laws and the new marine laws. While in theory the marine policies aim for equality before the law, the implementation is highly questionable. The laws still benefit the white minority and continue to impoverish local Indigenous people. After 27 years of democracy in South Africa, many small-scale fishing communities are still in a similar situation or worse than they were before apartheid. 

How does the case study work complement the large-scale conflict database being built at Stanford?

Sundnes (NIVA): The case studies will help us understand to what extent factors like gender, socioeconomics, and power relations at local and regional scales, are important for explaining conflict prevalence. Bringing this understanding together with the large-scale conflict data will help us determine which large-scale drivers also persist at the local scales, and how perceptions of conflicts vary with scale. Learning from specific communities also allows us to understand how past conflicts might have been resolved, which can help identify potential resource management and policy interventions.

COS engages with research from insight to impact. What kind of impact do you hope this work will have?

Selig: There are a few layers to that question. If we really want to have a successful ocean economy, we need to understand why conflict happens and how to better manage conflict. It’s central to a lot of different stakeholders — development agencies, fisheries agencies, national governments — to develop this understanding. There are many places that have had success in resolving conflicts, and we hope that these examples can illuminate potential pathways to conflict resolution. I think it’s a moral and ethical investment to truly understand how consulting early and often with key stakeholders, particularly those who often are marginalized within these processes, can help to avoid future conflicts.

Wabnitz: I agree. Striving for justice around issues of access to marine resources and who stands to benefit from their utilisation as well their management, for instance, requires that we understand and consider these conflicts and do so with care. Understanding the drivers of  these conflicts and finding just solutions to their resolution is important - it’s not just a resource issue but a development and humanitarian issue as well. This project is helpful to think through holistic approaches and solutions to marine resource conflicts.

Learn more about the MARICA project >


MARICA research is funded as part of Research Council of Norway, project no.: 287442. Frode Sundnes and Hans N. Adam are project leads from the Norwegian Institute for Water ResearchTracey Dennis, Frankquit Jooste, Mafaniso Hara and Moenieba Isaacs are researchers at the University of Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies. Other project partners include the Wildlife Conservation Society, University of Ghana, Norwegian Computer Center, Peace Research Institute of Oslo, and University of Bergen. 

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