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SA must play catch-up on marine protection

Wildoceans caused a stir on social media with its provocative “WE DON’T NEED OUR OCEANS” campaign. Pictures: Taryn Hatchett

Many South Africans are happy to make a contribution to land and animal conservation yet remain blissfully unaware of the urgent need to protect our marine areas from threats like overfishing and prospecting for gas and oil.

A recent article in National Geographic magazine (September 2020), “The Power of Protection”, noted some of the more impressive initiatives to protect marine environments and fish stocks. Among them was little Palau in Micronesia, which has for centuries used temporary closures of fishing, called “buls”, to protect its reef fish stocks. Over the years the islanders have created 35 reserves that protect marine life around their islands.

Abundant life on a healthy reef. Picture: Olga Tsai on Unsplash

“In 2015 Palau’s national congress established a no-take marine sanctuary covering 80% of the country’s exclusive economic zone – an emphatic commitment to the idea that a flourishing economy depends on a healthy environment,” the 2020 article read.

More offspring

Globally renowned TV personality and environmentalist David Attenborough, in his recently released book A Life on Our Planet, highlighted the dire threats to our oceans, such as overfishing, plundering of marine resources, nations illegally fishing in sovereign waters, destruction of coral reef systems, warming oceans, the melting at the ice caps, etc. He said, “It’s imperative that a healthy proportion of the ocean is not fished at all, due to the way that fish reproduce. No-fish zones allow individual fish to grow older and bigger. And bigger individuals produce disproportionately more offspring.”

Attenborough made mention of the marine protect area of Cabo Pulmo, at the tip of Baja California in Mexico. Severely overfished, its stressed community of fisherpeople, relying on the ocean for their living, agreed to the setting aside of 7 000 ha of their coast as a no-fish zone.

Abundant stocks

“The local people describe the years immediately after the MPA was opened in 1995 as the hardest they had ever faced. Fishermen could see growing shoals and were often tempted to break the ban.”

But “after just 15 years, the amount of marine life in the no-fish zone increased by more than 400% to a level similar to reefs that had never been fished at all, and the fish began spreading into neighbouring waters.”

Not only did the fishermen catch more than they had in decades, but the area turned into a tourist attraction, with dive shops, guest houses and restaurants (the bounty of a healthy sea).

Save Our Seas

By comparison SA has designated just 5% of our marine areas for protection. Last year SA’s environmental ministry announced 20 new marine protected areas off SA’s coastline, increasing the overall percentage of ocean under protection from 0.4 to 5%.

Healthy marine areas equals healthy fish stocks and opportunities for ecotourism. Picture: Aviv Perets on Unsplash

The organisation Save Our Seas was enthusiastic about the impact of the increased protection (read more about what it said here), but SA still lags behind many countries with less resources and there are always concerns about effective enforcement of protections.

Wildoceans, a programme of the Wildtrust, caused a stir on social media recently with its provocative “WE DON’T NEED OUR OCEANS” campaign. The environmental non-profit hoped, through the campaign, to show South Africa (and the world) what life might be like without our oceans, and place a spotlight on just how much we depend on them, as well as mobilise a regional movement for increased marine protection.

An image from the WE DON’T NEED OUR OCEANS CAMPAIGN. Pictures: Taryn Hatchett

The campaign is a branch off of the OCEAN IMPACT campaign, underwriting a three-year project driving advanced protection of South Africa’s oceans within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

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Wildtrust, along with many other environmental organisations, has been pushing the need to conserve the planet for many years and has been educating the masses about the need for a healthy planet, the need for our land and the need for our oceans. “If those messages truly resonated, if people understood why and how they could look after the planet, surely the land and sea would be thriving and resilient against everything we throw at it? Instead, we are entering into the 6th extinction crisis and need to urgently make a shift from what needs to be done to how it can be done,” the organisation said in a press release.

The combined economic benefits from coastal resources are estimated to be about 35% of South Africa’s annual GDP.

Campaign lead, Lauren van Nijkerk of the Wildtrust, said: “People don’t act like they need the oceans. Covid-19 certainly made people question their relationship with nature, but I do not believe it made people care less about themselves and more about the planet. So how do we tell our people about our oceans and the need to protect them? How do we deliver a message that resonates for people, that gets their attention? I think we can do this by showing South Africa a world without our oceans.”

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A shift from 5% to 10% protection in South Africa’s waters would see massive benefits for the country. According to the 2014 “State of the Ocean and Coasts Report”, the direct value of the marine ecotourism sector to the SA economy is estimated at R400m and its indirect value at more than R2bn. The combined economic benefits from coastal resources are estimated to be about 35% of South Africa’s annual GDP.

The Wildoceans report added that MPAs are a critical tool in the ocean protection toolbox, playing an important role in ensuring the survival of all ocean space. “Defending the oceans’ capacity to produce oxygen, sequester carbon and provide food and livelihoods for billions of people is vital. It is important to note that economic recovery is compatible with environmental protection.”
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