Getting fishy: What you should know about SA's 19 marine protected areas

What is a marine protected area (MPA), and should we care about the ones in South Africa?

These are the places where holidaymakers spend their Decembers on our stunning coastline, pristine and protected from anything that will take away it's most valuable asset - its marine life.

SEE: National Marine Week: What South Africans are doing to celebrate and protect our oceans

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an MPA is, “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”

South Africa has 19 MPAs, and they can be divided into three kinds of zones:

  • Restricted: These are 'no-take' areas where any harvesting of marine life is prohibited.
  • Controlled: These are certain areas where you are allowed to fish and take from the ocean, but only with a valid permit that has certain restrictions on it.
  • Mixed: These areas have both restricted and controlled sections, which normally makes concessions to nearby communities.

Here are the 19 MPAs of South Africa, perfect for wild coastal escapes, animal viewing and underwater exploration.

WATCH: 10 cool Southern African dive spots that will make you want to take a deep breath

Aliwal Shoal

Where: Between Mzimayi and Umkomaas River mouths, KwaZulu-Natal

Managed by: Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife

What to see: Aliwal Shoal is one of the most popular diving spots in the world, where there are scores of ragged-tooth sharks for five months of the year, humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins love to play here from May to November and turtles and sea reef start their families here.


Where: False Bay, Western Cape

Managed by: City of Cape Town

What to see: On its 4km stretch of undisturbed beach with a mobile dune system you'll find the last relic population of the giant isopod Tylos Granulatus. Rocky reefs and kelp beds are to be found in the sea, but you'll have a great view of Table Mountain from here on clear days.


Where: Garden Route National Park, Western and Eastern Cape

Managed by: SANParks

What to see: One of the jewels of the Garden Route, Tsitsikamma's MPA is one of the largest and oldest 'no-take' zones in the world, as well as the first marine national parks in SA. It includes the Storms River that runs into it and the coastal forests that make up its ecosystem, and seabirds like cormorants, kelp gulls and African black oystercatchers are abundant on its shoreline.

SEE: Wind your way through these Dorpies of the Eastern Cape: Storms River


Where: Mpenjati Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal

Managed by: Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife

What to see: To get here you'd have to go through Trafalgar village or Mpenjati reserve, and besides its extreme diversity of habitats in such a small area, you can also see fossilised Cretaceous trees frozen in time in the rocks that become visible at low tide.

Sardinia Bay

Where: Sardinia Bay Nature Reserve, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape

Managed by: Nelson Mandela Metro

What to see: Little development has taken place on this 7km stretch of beach, and while now fishing is allowed between Schoenmakerskop and Bushy Park's beacon, you can do some sightseeing by boat or go diving.

Bird Island

Where: Algoa Bay, Addo Elephant National Park, Eastern Cape

Managed by: SANParks

What to see: With the addition of the MPA, the national park has the Big 7 instead of the Big 5 - the southern right whale and the great white shark rounds up the name. The islands in the area are also home to the world' biggest breeding colony of Cape gannets, as well as large colonies of Cape fur seals and African penguins.

SEE: #SAHeritage: Dive into the Algoa Bay Hope Spot

Dwesa Cwebe

Where: Dwesa Nature Reserve, Eastern Cape

Managed by: Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency

What to see: This part of the Wild Coast is important for the recovery of collapsed fish stocks, and allows fishing by local fishermen with the correct permits. The reserve encompasses grasslands, coastal forests and has stunning hiking trails where visitors can see its beauty.


Where: Hluleka Nature Reserve, Ngqeleni, Eastern Cape

Managed by: Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency

What to see: Another Wild Coast reserve, this 'no-take' MPA stretches from Coffee Bay to Port St Johns for 4km, providing sanctuary to the giants of the deep, and includes beach coves, rocky shoreline, a river mouth and sandy beaches.

West Coast National Park

Where: West Coast National Park, Western Cape

Managed by: SANParks

What to see: West Coast National Park is famous for its springtime flower season, its MPA is also a big drawcard, made up of five smaller MPAs - the islands of Malgas, Jutten and Marcus, the Langebaan Lagoon and Sixteen Mile Beach in Yzerfontein.

SEE: Coast along SA's shores the West Coast way


Where: East London, Eastern Cape

Managed by: Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency

What to see: This MPA is only 7 years old, and was established after overfishing devastated its fish populations. Now it's a completely 'no-take' zone, but the MPA does not cover the estuaries within its borders, where shore-based angling, spearfishing and bait collecting activities are still allowed.


Where: Isimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal

Managed by: Isimangaliso Wetland Park Authority

What to see: This World Heritage Site is one of the most important marine reserves in the world, stretching from Maputo Bay on the Mozambique Border all the way to Cape St Lucia. Its diving is also world-renowned, and you'll be able to see a variety of tropical fish, sharks and turtles among its spectacular coral reefs.


Where: Plettenberg Bay, Western Cape

Managed by: CapeNature

What to see: While it's one of the smaller MPAs in South Africa, its rocky coast and offshore reefs are important areas for your favourite fish and chips snacks, namely east coast sole, silver kob and hake. Robberg is also a breeding ground for African black oystercatchers and the white-breasted cormorant, and in the Robberg Nature Reserve you can also find ancient relics of our ancestors who were also once dependent on the area's marine ecosystem.

SEE: Bitou Valley Camping: Make Plett's ancient forests your backyard this summer


Where: Velddrif, Western Cape

Managed by: CapeNature

What to see: Protecting about 3km of beach and 500m out to sea of the West Coast, Rocherpan may be small but is transformed by the birds in its pan (when there's water outside of drought conditions) and the wildflowers during Spring. You can also check out its seasonal vlei from March to June.

Betty's Bay

Where: Betty's Bay, Western Cape

Managed by: CapeNature

What to see: The most famous feature in Betty's Bay is the Stony Point African penguin colony that's right on the shore, and while no fishing is allowed off a boat, you can angle from its shoreline with the necessary permits.


Where: Mkhambathi Nature Reserve, Eastern Cape

Managed by: Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency

What to see: On one of the most untamed sections of the Wild Coast, Pondoland's MPA is about 90km long and covers 10km out to the sea, and is a haven for many a sea creature. The marine biodiversity within this bioregion forms a unique transition zone with elements of sub-tropical and warm temperate ecosystems.

SEE: Get your fill of adrenaline chills along SA's thrilling Wild Coast


Where: Stillbaai, Western Cape

Managed by: CapeNature

What to see: This sleepy coastal town (when it's not school holidays) has a large MPA and one of the few that includes estuarine zones, with no fishing allowed at Geelkrans, Skulpiesbaair and the Goukou Estuary - a large river that runs all the way to the sea. 

De Hoop Nature Reserve

Where: De Hoop Nature Reserve, Western Cape

Managed by: CapeNature

What to see: This is one of the best places to see southern right whales in South Africa, where they come to give birth to their calves. Its coastline not only protects important fish populations, but its coastline has also protected important archaeological sites and shell middens that date back centuries.

Table Mountain National Park

Where: Cape Town, Western Cape

Managed by: SANParks

What to see: Many traditional fishing communities, fish traps and wrecks are found within the city's MPA as well as big tourist attractions such as Cape Point and Boulders Beach. It's made up of six 'no-take' zones around the harbours of Simons Town, Kalk Bay and Hout Bay, as well as in the areas around Witsands, Kommetjie, Millers Point, Buffels Bay and Granger Bay.

Goukamma Nature Reserve

Where: Buffels Bay, Garden Route, Western Cape

Managed by: CapeNature

What to see: While the reserve is still recovering from the devastating fires of 2017, its coastal section remains untouched as the Goukamma River connects the MPA to the reserve. It includes a semi-open-closed estuary where you can canoe up and down the river or watch the sunset from the beach.

SEE: Adventure Time: Riding the Wild Corridor of the Garden Route 

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