Merle Sowman


Merle Sowman CCRN Researcher

Merle Sowman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science at the University of Cape Town. She obtained her PhD in 1994 and has been involved in research, consulting and training in the fields of environmental and coastal management and governance, with a particular focus on small-scale fisheries governance, over the past 20 years. Key areas of research include environmental and coastal policy analysis; integrating sustainability and human rights principles into coastal planning processes, governance of MPAs and small-scale fisheries systems.

Merle is involved in a number of inter-disciplinary collaborative coastal and fisheries projects with research partners in various countries including South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Netherlands, Sri Lanka and India, Canada, Brazil and China.  She is currently project leader of an interdisciplinary project concerned with Climate change vulnerabilities of coastal fishing communities in the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem (BCLME), a recent BRICs project entitled “Coastal communities adaptive and resilient at the Edge”, and leads a research group working on integrating human dimensions into marine protected area (MPA) planning and management. She is a member of the CCRN, and has a number of post graduate students working on projects concerned with the main themes of the CCRN project namely; livelihoods, conservation, governance and social justice. Merle Sowman has acted as lead trainer and facilitator on over 30 environmental and coastal training courses for a variety of audiences including government officials, private sector players, NGOs as well as community groups. She co-ordinates a Masters course on ‘Managing complex human-ecological coastal systems’ at UCT, and lectures on environmental sustainability to undergraduate students at UCT. She is a member of the Scientific Steering Committee of Future earth Coast.


At this stage of our participation in the CCRN, our focus is on two study sites. The first is at Ebenhaeser, a traditional coastal fishing community on the Olifants estuary located on the west coast of South Africa, and the second, is a traditional trap fishery located on the Kosi Lake system on the north eastern border of South Africa and Mozambique. Merle, together with a number of post graduate students from the EEU, has been working with the fishers of Ebenhaeser for the past 18 years to better understand the fishery system in all its complexity – the history, fishing practices and fishing effort, socio-economic context, the cultural importance of fishing, and more recently trying to understand and incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into management decisions as state-driven policies seek to phase out this traditional fishery. Despite initial conflict and tensions between the fishers and conservation authorities as well as other groups who support the declaration of an MPA at the Olifants estuary, the past year has seen a shift in attitude amongst the conservation stakeholders who are beginning to recognize the cultural and socio-economic importance of the estuary and fishery to the Ebenhaeser community. The focus of work as part of the CCRN is to monitor, assess and document how the rights, livelihood needs and traditional ecological knowledge of this fisher community are integrated into conservation planning of this estuary.

The second site at Kosi Bay is the study site of a PhD candidate, Philile Mbatha from the EEU (supervised by Sowman and Wynberg), who is focusing on institutional complexities at Kosi Bay and how these affect the local livelihoods of people dependent on natural resources. A key livelihood in the lake system is the traditional trap fishery which contributes to food and livelihood needs of hundreds of households in the area. Based on preliminary research in the area (Sunde, 2012), it was found that this fishery is still operating under a customary governance system and local fishers are involved in customary fishing practices and make reference to customary rules and institutions. However, the Kosi Lake system is part of a World Heritage site, and is also subject to numerous national coastal and fisheries polices and legislation and management rules that have been imposed on this lake system with little regard for the customary systems operating in the region. This has led to conflicts and tensions between the local fishers and the authorities responsible for fisheries and conservation management. Of interest to the CCRN project will be to understand the conservation measures that form part of the customary governance system, and how these survive despite layers of state-driven laws and institutions that by-pass these customary governance systems.


Broadly speaking my work falls in three categories 1) policy-making and policy analysis, 2) research and facilitation to inform development of environmental management plans and natural resource governance approaches; and 3) engagement with coastal communities (including training and capacity development) regarding their rights and governance of their environment. My research is strongly rooted in the arena of natural resource management and its interface with communities and social justice concerns. A key focus is on enhancing the understanding of human dimensions and governance of complex human-ecological systems in particular small-scale fishery systems and marine protected areas (MPAs). Aside from the academic outputs the research usually has an applied outcome. Most research projects adopt an interdisciplinary and participatory approach. Wherever possible, local communities are other stakeholders are involved in the research process such as monitoring aspects of their fishery system or assisting with fieldwork.

A key research project underway and of relevance to the CCRN, is concerned with understanding and integrating human dimensions into MPA planning and management processes. The project involves six post graduate students working in different MPA sites focusing on specific human dimensions such as customary practices and institutions, gender, livelihoods, power and politics and institutional arrangements. It requires engagement with local communities affected by the MPAs as well as the national government agencies responsible for MPAs and the local conservation officials managing these areas on a day to day basis. The final output of this project is the development of a set of Guidelines for addressing and integrating human dimensions into MPA planning and management processes. A second project of relevance to CCRN is concerned with exploring governance – models, principles and approaches – across different natural resource sectors in Sub-Saharan Africa. The focus is on understanding the nature of governance and approaches and models that promote social justice and sustainability outcomes. The project involves over 15 contributors working on governance issues in Sub-Saharan Africa and will culminate in a book published by Earthscan during 2013 (Sowman and Wynberg, forthcoming).

A further key area of interest and activity is participation in and analysis of environmental and coastal policy-making processes – the most recent being the development of South Africa’s new Small-scale Fisheries Policy (DAFF, 2012). A current project that focuses on the governance of small-scale fisheries in South Africa and tracks the development and implementation of the policy is part of a larger research and policy development project entitled “Reincorporating the excluded: Providing space for fishers in sustainable development in South Africa and South Asia”. This is a collaborative research project under the leadership of Maarten Bavinck from University of Amsterdam and involves researchers from Sri Lanka, India and UK and Netherlands and South Africa. A key aspect of this project is the transfer of lessons and insights across the two regions as they seek to address the rights and needs of small-scale fishers through new policies.

Key Publications

  • Sowman M. 2009. An Evolving Partnership: Collaboration between ‘experts’ and a net-fishery. Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement Vol. 2.
  • Sowman M, Hauck, M, Van Sittert L and J Sunde. 2011. Marine Protected Area Management in South Africa: New policies – old paradigms. Environmental Management 47: 573 -583.
  • Sowman M. 2011. New perspectives in small-scale fisheries management: challenges and prospects for implementation in South Africa. African Journal of Marine Science 33: 297-311.
  • Sunde, J., Sowman, M., Smith, H. and Wilcomb, W. (forthcoming). ‘Emerging proposals for governance of tenure in small-scale fisheries in South Africa’, FAO Tenure Journal.