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Protecting our precious ocean resources

In October, South Africa commemorates National Marine Month, which creates awareness about the country’s marine and coastal environments and the benefits of the oceans.

South Africa’s oceans hold vital importance for our country’s economy and food security. Protecting the health of our marine life is therefore a top priority. Government has been on a renewed drive to conserve our oceans, with the establishment of new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

In May 2019, government officially gazetted the establishment of 20 new MPAs around our 2 850 km coastline. This brought the total number of MPAs in South Africa to 41, increasing the percentage of our protected marine ecosystems from 0.4 percent to 5.4 percent.

In an era of overfishing and climate change, the resources of the world’s oceans are under increasing pressure. MPAs are crucial for alleviating this pressure and ensuring the sustainability of our marine environments. These areas have strict rules in place to restrict fishing and other human impacts, creating safe spaces for fish and other marine life to breed and flourish.

Work on approving 20 new MPAs dates back to 2014, when, under government’s Operation Phakisa: Oceans Economy programme, a plan was endorsed to establish a viable network of MPAs.

After years of consultation with various communities and conservation authorities, the MPA network was gazetted in May, and officially came into effect on 1 August 2019.

“South Africa’s ocean space, which is one of the most varied in the world, is highly productive, with rich biodiversity providing for living and non-living resources that contribute significantly to the country’s economy and to job creation,” said then Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane at the time of gazetting.

The benefits of MPAs

Dr Kerry Sink has been involved in marine protection since 2005, and currently works as the Marine Programme Manager for the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). She also led the technical team that provided the scientific knowledge underpinning the Operation Phakisa MPA network.

“We used many map layers to design a network that represents the incredible diversity of South Africa’s marine ecosystems with the least socio-economic impact and the most benefits for people,” said Dr Sink.

The new MPAs cover various important underwater habitats and ecosystems, and also provide the first official protection for several threatened and fragile ecosystem types.

Dr Sink said MPAs provide benefits in multiple areas including tourism, fishing and the protection of sensitive areas.

“MPAs provide benefits by helping fish recover, both inside and next to MPAs. They boost tourism and help protect important sensitive areas from pressures that can undermine their value.”

She singled out the iSimangaliso MPA in KwaZulu-Natal as particularly impressive in fulfilling all of these areas – fish recovery, protection of sensitive coral reefs, turtle nesting and feeding areas and boosting tourism.

Dr Sink sited the Goukamma MPA near Knysna as another example of success. After the establishment of the MPA in 1990, populations of the valuable Roman bream immediately began to increase. By 2000, catch rates for fishermen in areas adjacent to the MPA doubled, and have been maintained ever since.

Meanwhile, the De Hoop MPA close to Agulhas – which has been in effect for more than 30 years – has become South Africa’s most important sanctuary for calving Southern Right Whales, while fish stocks have remained stable.

Dr Sink said the proclamation of 20 new MPAs is a giant leap forward for marine conservation in South Africa.

“The proclamation of the Phakisa MPA network took South Africa’s marine environment from least protected to best protected in comparison with terrestrial, wetland, estuarine and freshwater environments. This network will help sustain South Africa’s emerging ocean economy, protect marine ecosystems, rebuild fish stocks and support climate resilience.”

She noted this commitment has established South Africa as a leader in the management of ocean resources.

“As Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni said during the Cabinet meeting when this decision was made, 'This is an investment in South Africa’s future'. South Africa has established itself as a leader in integrated ocean management, balancing protection with economic development for increased ocean benefits.”

Effectively managing MPAs

From the conception of the Operation Phakisa MPA network, government has been acutely aware of the factors that need to be taken into account for the effective management of MPAs.

“The department is fully aware of the considerable commitment required to effectively manage the new MPAs, and this has been part of the process from the outset. In this regard, a number of state conservation agencies contributed to stakeholder engagements and also advised, on the basis of their local insight, on the suitability of the management measures for each MPA,” the department said in its press statement confirming the establishment of the new MPAs.

In this regard, various management authorities have been enlisted, including provincial conservation agencies and South African National Parks. SANBI, in consultation with national and provincial authorities, leads the identification of priority areas for the expansion of MPAs, in line with international conservation targets.

The Western Cape is home to almost half of the MPAs in the new expanded network. Provincial conservation body CapeNature is the assigned management authority for these MPAs.

“CapeNature contributes to the National Biodiversity Assessment which informs protected area expansion at a national level, through the generation of information and contributing to prioritised monitoring programmes,” said Pierre de Villiers, Programme Manager for CapeNature’s Coastal Programme.

He explained CapeNature carries out a number of management actions, including a variety of research and monitoring programmes, as well as regular land and sea-based patrols.

“Threats like shark long lining and abalone poaching have been identified and need to be controlled. The use of satellite-based systems is assisting CapeNature to identify the long liner vessels that often enter the MPA at night. The carrying out of sea patrols in varying weather and sea conditions with a semi-inflatable vessel requires highly-specialised skills, adequate personnel and maintained, reliable equipment.”

De Villiers highlighted some of the most important factors that need to be taken into account when managing MPAs. These include monitoring key stone or indicator species, interpreting data, understanding how the MPA functions within the broader ecosystem, developing partnerships to assist in managing and monitoring MPAs, and developing and managing effective stakeholder engagement platforms.

Benefitting communities

De Villiers stressed MPAs have to benefit communities in order to be successful.

“Apart from serving a critical function in addressing the conservation of important species, MPAs also provide a “spill over” effect to surrounding fisheries which contributes to their sustainability.”

He said CapeNature also focuses on creating jobs in the MPAs.

“CapeNature focuses its efforts and those of its partners on creating jobs within the conservation field, for example coastal monitors, and within the fields of tourism where the harvesting of animals is not involved. A good example is the community restaurant at Stony Point in Betty’s Bay.”

CapeNature also sets up communication platforms or forums where community members are exposed to a range of alternative livelihoods (other than fishing) as well as improved fishing livelihoods.

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