Protecting SA’s unique marine environments

Andreas Wilson-Späth

 I’m often critical of the South African government’s environmental policies. They love fracking, nuclear energy and genetically modified crops. I don’t.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a great many government people doing outstanding work on crucial green issues or that all of the state’s environmental initiatives are bad.

Here’s a case in point. At the beginning of February, the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, published draft notices and regulations for 22 new marine protected areas (MPAs). That’s fantastic news!

MPAs are areas of coastline or open ocean that are legally protected in order to conserve important marine habitats, including spawning, nursery, feeding, breeding and aggregation sites that are vital for populations of many sea creatures. MPAs also aim to preserve a variety of ecosystem services from natural flood protection to sediment retention, and to provide locations for scientific research, sustainable tourism and other economic activities. Some of them represent strict ‘no-take’ zones where nothing may be caught, removed or disturbed, while others allow for certain regulated activities.

According to Saul Roux, a Legal Campaigner at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), “there is widespread scientific research that confirms that marine protected areas are one of the best tools for protecting and restoring marine biodiversity. Despite this, offshore environments are afforded the least protection both in South Africa and globally. Currently, less than 0.5% of our vast exclusive economic zone or EEZ [that’s the stretch of ocean extending out to 200 nautical miles in which a country has special rights to exploit marine resources under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea], spanning 1.5 million square kilometres, is protected”.

That’s a measly proportion compared to the area represented by terrestrial national parks which enclose about 8% of SA’s land area, and nowhere near the global norm which suggests that countries should designate 20% of their EEZs as MPAs.

The proposed new MPAs, which cover a combined area of around 70 000 square kilometres, will take us to 5% of the country’s EEZ, while the National Protected Area Expansion Strategy of 2008 includes a 20-year target to get us to the recommended 20% level.

“In South Arica approximately 47% of marine and coastal habitat types are threatened with 17% being critically endangered,” says Roux. “Through systematic biodiversity planning, the proposed network will protect many of these threatened and critically endangered ecosystems and species, ensuring that they survive and persist”. Among the other potential benefits he lists opportunities for coastal and marine tourism as well as marine based industries. “Research shows that marine protected areas are powerful fisheries management tools that enable depleted and over-exploited stocks to recover. By protecting marine ecosystems, adjacent areas are seeded with eggs, larvae and adult and juvenile fish. This spill-over effect provides significant benefits to commercial fishing”.

Among the various ecosystems to be protected are a cold water coral reef, a fossilised yellow wood forest submerged under 120 metres of seawater off Namaqualand, a major expansion of the existing iSimangaliso Wetland Park on the extreme north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as various well-known diving sites and unique habitats including mangrove forests, coastal wetlands, undersea canyons and seamounts.

That all sounds excellent. One note of caution is in order, however. The new network of MPAs falls under Operation Phakisa, a government project aimed at fast-tracking economic development, in this case the so-called ocean economy, which may include industries such as offshore oil and gas, mariculture, marine shipping and manufacture. In his recent State of the Nation Address, President Zuma suggested that SA’s marine resources have the potential of contributing as much as R177bn to the GDP by 2033 (compared to R54bn in 2010), offering some 800 000 to 1 000 000 jobs (compared to 316 000 in 2010).

According to the CER, prioritising such economic developments “could have significant impacts on marine ecosystems and associated ecosystem services. It is thus important that rapid economic development is moderated with proper protection and mechanisms are put in place to ensure our marine ecosystems remain healthy and productive. This network [of MPAs] is a step in the right direction in ensuring a sustainable and balanced blue economy”.

“Balancing multiple interests is one of the main challenges,” says Roux. “However, in the development of the proposed network, planners made use of conservation planning software which employs an optimisation algorithm in order to minimise potential impacts and overlap with industries. It focused on protecting areas with both conservation benefit and low socio-economic cost. This is a novel approach to reducing user conflicts and socio-economic impact. Furthermore, stakeholder engagement in both industry and government was undertaken from the outset of the project to minimise socio-economic impact and reduce potential user conflicts”.

During a 90-day public comment period which ends on the 3rd of May, public consultation meetings will be held by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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