Roughly 50,000km2 of South Africa’s marine ecosystems and habitats are now official marine protected areas (MPAs).
For South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) conservation strategist, Dr Judy Mann, this is something to celebrate, especially on World Oceans Day.
5% of South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which includes about 85% of the country’s diverse marine ecosystems and habitats, protects a total of 41 MPAs. This means protecting an area of ocean more than twice the size of the Kruger National Park, Mann enthused.
This is a solid step in the right direction for South Africa’s marine life conservation efforts, especially in light of US President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that commercial fishing enterprises may now invade a marine conservation area, off the coast of New England.
The announcement, conservationists in the region say, would put the lives of endured right whales and other threatened marine life at risk. Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument have vowed to legally challenge Trump’s latest environmental backtracking.
In contrast, although South Africa has a way to go in terms of managing overfishing and supporting fishermen, signs of recovery have already been observed in SAAMBR projects, notably with the seventy-four fish, red steenbras and black musselcracker, Mann said.
She lamented that there are fisheries in the country showing signs of over-exploitation, through overfishing and unsustainable practices, but confirmed that fish can recover from overfishing.
Almost 80 million tonnes of fish are caught in marine fisheries around the world.
Mann explained that when commercial fisheries are well managed and sustainable, they play an important role in ocean economies.
“However, over 70% of the world’s fisheries are either fully or over-exploited. This means there is no potential to harvest more fish from our oceans.
“Many of the world’s fisheries are not sustainable, and over-fishing is impacting both the species that are directly caught, as well as many others in the complex ocean food webs.”
Unfortunately, many unsustainable fishing enterprises also threaten marine life by unwanted by-catch, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of unwanted fish, sea turtles and cetaceans every year, amounting to millions of tonnes of discarded sea life.
The importance of MPAs
Overfishing and unsustainable practices associated with many players within the industry make MPAs more important than ever.
These areas help protect South Africa’s natural heritage, including a host of varying underwater habitats, such as coral reefs, kelp forests, estuaries and underwater canyons. But they also protect where marine animals breed and grow up.
This means they help protect the plants and animals unique to South Africa, and protects the homes of especially vulnerable, rare or endangered species, such as ancient coelacanths, who call submarine canyons off Maputaland home, Mann explained.
Not surprisingly, the species that are protected by living in MPAs thrive more than in areas outside these MPAs.
And so too do the fishermen who catch fish next to MPAs, and end up catching larger fish in bigger quantities.
“Resident big old fat female fish that are protected in MPAs produce many more eggs than the smaller fish found in fished areas outside of MPAs.
“Not only do these large females produce more eggs, but their eggs and larvae have better survival rates, and are genetically fitter than those produced by smaller, younger fish. This helps to maintain healthier populations of these fish species,” Mann noted.
“In many ways, MPAs work like a bank – if we protect the fish in the MPAs (capital in the bank), we can harvest the spillover (interest) that flows out of the MPAs,” she explained.
Help save the oceans on 8 June – and every day
World Oceans Day is significant to the general public, more than 60% of which live within 100km of the ocean.
Everyone has a role to play in looking after our seas. Billions of humans depend on fish for their primary source of protein, and many more animals. But fish are a finite resource if human beings continue to take more than can be replenished.
Without the ocean, which covers 70% of the earth’s surface, provides over half of the oxygen we breathe, and absorbs one-third of carbon emissions caused by people, neither humans nor marine life would survive.
So, how can the general population help protect our oceans?
We must be more mindful of the fish we consume. In South Africa alone, 312 million kilogrammes of seafood is consumed every year.
Keep this in mind when purchasing your next fish to braai when lockdown is over, and stay away from fish on Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI)’s red list. Ensure that seafood you consume comes from well-managed stocks, and use SASSi’s or MSC’s lists to guide you.
Make sure to throw away all litter, especially when you are on the beach. Most pollution ends up littering our coastlines, which puts both land and marine animals, as well as humans, at risk. Take a plastic bag to the beach with you to pick up litter.
And never take the ocean for granted. It may be vast and intimidating, but it is a sensitive, complex ecosystem that human beings can easily destroy.
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