Oceans of change: SA seas are getting ‘national parks’
The cabinet has announced a huge expansion of Marine Protected Areas
The cabinet has approved a major expansion of “national parks” in the sea off SA by creating 20 new or enlarged Marine Protected Areas that will be off-limits to fishing trawlers, oil drilling, mining and other environmentally damaging activities.
The decision was announced by Derek Hanekom, the acting minister of environmental affairs, after cabinet approved a new sea protection plan that would increase the size of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) from just 0.4% of the country’s 320km-wide Exclusive Economic Zone currently, to cover 5% of this offshore sea area.
The expanded protection zone – believed to cover nearly 70,000 km² – represents a more than a tenfold increase in the size of the country’s protected ocean area. However, a vastly larger area of ocean has already been offered for oil and gas exploration surveys by the Petroleum Agency of SA.
Marine conservation groups, under the umbrella of the “Only This Much” coalition, have welcomed the cabinet decision, describing it as a “massive win for marine conservation”.
Dr Jean Harris, a senior marine scientist and executive director of the WILDOCEANS marine and coastal conservation group, said: “We congratulate President Ramaphosa and his government for taking this bold step to underwrite the health of our oceans. It is a tribute to the visionary leadership of the late Minister Edna Molewa and her team who have worked so hard to achieve this important outcome.
“This will ensure South Africa is on track to meet our international obligation to protect 10% of our oceans by 2020, and the scientifically recommended 30% by 2030. Critically, it will safeguard marine resources for the benefit of all South Africans,” she said.
The coalition of organisations, which includes WILDOCEANS, Ocean Unite, WWF-SA, Centre for Environmental Rights and the SA Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) has been working to support the expansion of the country’s marine protected areas.
“This development is a massive first step towards greater protection and SA have now established themselves as an ocean leader in Africa,” said Karen Sack, managing director at Ocean Unite, an international ocean conservation network based in Washington DC.
The coalition said MPAs were important to address the multifaceted and complex challenges facing oceans and to reduce risks from human impacts.
“They provide refuges for threatened species, allow damaged ecosystems to recover and help rebuild collapsed fish stocks. They also offer direct economic and social benefits to people, as well as climate mitigation services.”
Hanekom said: “This network of 20 MPAs, approved by cabinet on Wednesday, will considerably advance SA’s efforts to protect our ocean heritage for future generations.”
His department said work on the new approved network of MPAs dated back to 2014, when the government endorsed a plan to achieve, as part of Operation Phakisa: Ocean Economy, a viable network of MPAs.
“As we grow and intensify the ocean economy, it is essential to provide the necessary protection to a representative sample of marine ecosystems, thereby ensuring their resilience to human use and impact, and to the impacts associated with climate change,” Hanekom said.
His department said MPAs provided safe spaces for fish to breed undisturbed.
MPAs also contributed to growing the marine ecotourism sector by providing undisturbed natural habitat for whales, sharks, seals, dolphins, turtles and seabirds for international and domestic tourists to experience.
“The new MPA network is the product of extensive consultation and negotiation with all stakeholders, which sought to ensure that the network is aligned with relevant policies and priorities for fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, as well as marine mining and oil exploration, while also protecting ecologically important areas.”
In the sea of KwaZulu-Natal, the new plan includes a significant expansion to iSimangaliso MPA and World Heritage Site, a marine sanctuary that helps to protect several sea creatures, including coelacanths, marine turtles, coral reefs and migratory whales.
It will also include the proposed uThukela MPA, a massive underwater zone fed by freshwater from SA’s second-largest river, the uThukela (Tugela). The area is home to fish species such as the rare 74 seabream, black musselcracker, yellow belly and catface rock cods and even seahorses.
Off the Eastern Cape coastline, the new plan is expected to incorporate the 6,200km² Agulhas Front MPA, about 200km south of Port Elizabeth, which includes a largely unexplored deep-water abyss.
The Addo Elephant National Park MPA is expected to incorporate about 1,200km² of sea protection area for great white sharks and whales, along with 9,000 pairs of endangered African penguins that breed on St Croix Island and 60,000 pairs of endangered Cape gannets that breed on Bird Island.
Off the Western Cape coastline, the proposed 4,300km² Agulhas Bank Complex MPA incorporates a spectacular volcanic pinnacle that rises up from a depth of 80m.
The proposed Benguela Bank MPA, west of Doringbaai, has been classified as “untrawlable ground” because trawl nets have snagged on hard structures on the seabed in this area.
The 6 000km² proposed SE Atlantic Seamounts MPA, also known as the “mountains in the sea”, has several seamounts rising more than 2,500m from the sea floor.
The Browns Bank Corals MPA south of Cape Town has several types of corals, while the Browns Bank Complex off Struisbaai includes large areas of untrawled rocky, gravel and sandy ecosystems where seabirds forage and fish spawn.
The Cape Canyon MPA is described as “a deep and dramatic submarine canyon carved into the continental shelf” that has previously been explored for diamonds.
The Namaqua National Park MPA is a nursery area for Cape hakes, one of the country’s most valuable fisheries resources.
For more information on MPAs, go here.