OPINION | Sophie von der Heyden: Now more than ever we need to treasure our oceans

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Studies have shown that climate change and plastic pollution are two of the most significant threats facing natural systems, writes the author.
Studies have shown that climate change and plastic pollution are two of the most significant threats facing natural systems, writes the author.
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Simple every day measures such as reducing plastic usage, ensuring rubbish is put into bins rather than down a stormwater drain and choosing responsibly sourced marine protein can go a long way to reducing the impact on the ocean, writes Sophie von der Heyden.


There was a collective intake of breath, followed by disbelief, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the closure of beaches as a preventative measure against Covid-19 in December 2020. This deeply affected many South Africans for whom Christmas and New Year are also beach time, a chance to get sandy, enjoy the fresh air and experience the coolness of the ocean.

The oceans enrich many people's lives beyond visits to the beach, yet there is much that we still do not understand about the world's oceans, particularly the deeper and more remote parts.

In coastal South Africa, we have one of the most diverse arrays of coastal current and temperature patterns, stretching from the cold oceans of the West Coast to the warmer waters of the East Coast and straddling two ocean basins, the Atlantic and Indian. Such a meeting of two great oceanic systems is found nowhere else on earth and sets the scene for an incredible diversity of plants and animals, many of which are found only on our shores. 

Connectedness of people and the oceans

To date, more than 12 000 species have been described from the region, with many of those only found in South Africa.

Along the approximately 2 800km of coastline, there are many different types of habitats, including sandy and rocky shores and underwater kelp forests and rocky reefs, meadows of seagrasses and forests of mangroves. Each of these systems play an important role in providing a service, not only to biodiversity, but also humanity, and includes climate regulation, absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking this into marine sediments, as well as providing food to many people in the region. 

READ | Analysis: Humans must change relationship with environment to prevent future pandemics

In South Africa, there are many different levels of harvesting food from the ocean, from subsistence and small-scale fishers to extensive commercial operations. It is estimated that there are between 25 000 to 30 000 small-scale fishers alone and almost 500 000 recreational fishers. Although these numbers may seem a small proportion of the general population, many of these fishers support extended families, often in communities where few job opportunities or other viable income streams exist. 

It is against this background that the theme for World Oceans Day 2021, "The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods" is so important. It celebrates the connectedness of people and the oceans.

According to the United Nations, the purpose of World Oceans Day is "to inform the public of the impact of human actions on the ocean, develop a worldwide movement of citizens for the ocean, and mobilise and unite the world's population on a project for the sustainable management of the world's oceans". This is vital for raising awareness of just how much marine systems are part of our everyday lives and the value of the oceans in enriching human well-being. Without our oceans, there would be no life. 

Reduce plastic usage

This, of course, places some responsibility for looking after the oceans on everyone, whether you are reading this in the Free State or sitting on a beach. It can sometimes be challenging to understand how as individuals we can help preserve the oceans.

Still, even simple every day measures such as reducing plastic usage, ensuring rubbish is put into bins rather than down a stormwater drain and choosing responsibly sourced marine protein can go a long way to reducing the impact on the ocean. 

Studies have shown that climate change and plastic pollution are two of the most significant threats facing natural systems, with both having enormous negative impacts on ecosystems globally. For example, reports suggest that a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic is increasing amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) littering beaches and shallow marine environments, with single-use face masks identified as the most common form of PPE in some areas.

This has the potential of seriously threatening marine life, including iconic species such as turtles and seabirds. We need to take collective responsibility to help safeguard the future of our oceans and humanity.  

Looking forward and celebrating World Oceans Day, this is an opportune time to reconnect with the wonders we have on our doorstep and celebrate the richness, beauty, and even the services provided by the marine environment unique to South Africa. 

- Sophie von der Heyden is Associate Professor in Marine Genomics and Conservation in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University.

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