SA must do more for its national parks at sea
MARINE protected areas (MPAS) are biologically spectacular – not only are they a haven for a variety of species, but they are also critical for climate change mitigation and food security.
South Africa desperately needs to increase its MPA footprint, which is sitting at only 0.4%.
While countries around the world, notably Brazil, Mexico and Chile, have moved to protect their oceans, South Africa is lagging far behind.
On March 20, Brazil announced the designation of four new marine protected areas around the Trindade-martin Vaz and the São Pedro and São Paulo archipelagos, two regions in the South Atlantic. The MPAS cover an area of more than 900 000km2 – larger than France, England, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined.
On November 24, 2017, Mexico announced it would protect 91 732km2 of the ocean around the Revillagigedo Islands from fishing and resource extraction. This reserve is the largest marine protected area created in the Americas, including offshore waters which support 366 species of fish as well as 37 species of rays and sharks, function as calving grounds for humpback whales and support coral gardens and a range of other relatively pristine marine ecosystems.
Both followed the lead set by Chile where, during her tenure, President Michelle Bachelet secured protection of more than 1 000 000km2 of their waters – more than 40%. This Latin American ocean protection leadership follows clear science that shows the importance of these national parks at sea to build resilience as well as to revitalise the abundance and diversity of marine fish stocks.
A number of other countries are following suit, with the Seychelles being South Africa’s closest neighbour to take action, protecting 210 000km2 in February this year, as well as committing to increasing the area of its marine protection from 0.04% to 30% by 2022.
The two new protected areas announced earlier this year mean that the country is more than halfway to meeting this goal, with 16% of its waters fully protected. Despite this, protection of Africa’s oceans is lagging far behind most other parts of the world.
South Africa currently has a network of 24 coastal MPAS covering only 0.4% of the continental exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and one sub-antarctic MPA (Prince Edward Islands).
When South Africa’s marine protected areas were surveyed alongside 39 developed countries, they ranked 34th out of 40, with an average of 11.2% for the other countries. This is according to the UN Environment Programme’s World Database on Protected Areas.
It further states that when South Africa was surveyed together with 129 developing countries it ranked 90th out of 130 – which had an average of 5.8% compared with South Africa’s measly 0.4%.
“(South Africa’s) 0.4% is hopelessly inadequate to maintain sustainable benefits in a growing ocean economy,” said Wild Oceans executive director, Dr Jean Harris.
“A minimum target agreed to as a global standard is 10% marine protection, with South Africa committing to achieving this by 2020.
“As an interim step, in 2016 the DEA (Department of Environmental Affairs) published (its) intention to gazette 22 new/expanded MPAS to achieve a 5% protection. Although a relatively modest advance, this will see the protection for 43 ecosystem types and nine of the 15 critically endangered ecosystem types, all currently unprotected.
“This will also see benefits to fisheries, including the protection of nursery and spawning areas, resource recovery and the management of essential fish habitat,” she said.
“Marine parks are about more than just a haven for the species that live in them. These national parks at sea are critical climate-change fighting tools and help support food security,” said Karen Sack, managing director of Ocean Unite.
“The ocean is a massive carbon sink, and science is now demonstrating that marine reserves slow the effects of climate change, rebuild biodiversity and help build resilience,” Slack said.
“Like Mexico, Chile, Brazil and the Seychelles, governments can affirm their international commitments to combating climate change, securing jobs and food through the creation of marine reserves – or climate reserves.”
There is an urgent need to gain strategic wins for marine conservation in African waters that will catalyse action across the region, said Harris.
In 2014, South Africa embarked on a fast-track process to achieve an interim 5% by 2016, followed an addi5% by
by tional 2020. Unfortunately, this process has stalled, with stakeholders raising concerns that this hiatus is due to undue influence from the extractive mining sector which is seen as one of the main drivers for unlocking South Africa’s “ocean economy”.
Of note is that the Department of Energy in recent years placed 98% of South Africa’s EEZ under acreage lease for oil and gas exploration or production rights, and there is talk of new mining opportunities for phosphate extraction and other seabed minerals.
Encouragingly, the drive to achieve a 10% (and more) MPA target appears well supported at the most senior levels in the Department of Environmental Affairs and aligns with South Africa’s National Development Plan outcomes and international commitments at the UN.
Further, South Africa has recently assumed the role of chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association and there is a timely opportunity for South Africa to lead the way to establishing MPA expansion as a key blue economy ocean governance goal within the African region. – Wildtrust
Van Nijkerk is a director of Wildtrust, formerly the Wildlands Conservation Trust.