Sunday, August 1 marks the first ever Marine Protected Area (MPA) Day in Africa, if not globally. Established by South African organisations passionate about our oceans and the protection of marine life and people, the Day draws attention to the importance of MPAs in conserving marine biodiversity.
What is an MPA?
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature defines an MPA as a clearly defined geographical space, which is 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.
“Without a balanced and healthy ecosystem within the marine environment, we cannot have a healthy ecosystem on land.”Dr Judy Mann
Given the negative human impacts such as overfishing, toxic chemical spills and the dangers to marine life associated with proposed oil and gas exploration, MPAs are increasingly important for the survival of our oceans. Furthermore, the ocean environment has a direct impact on what happens out of the water. Says Dr Judy Mann, conservation strategist at the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR), one of the organisations involved in the setting up of MPA Day, “without a balanced and healthy ecosystem within the marine environment, we cannot have a healthy ecosystem on land.”
Globally, there are approximately 5000 MPAs. These cover an area of 2.85-million km2, or 0.8% of the world’s ocean space. South Africa boasts 42 Marine Protected Areas representing diverse ecosystems along our 2850 kilometre coastline and offshore. From the unique, submerged fossilised yellowwood forests in the 1200 km2 Namaqua Fossil Forest MPA off the north west coast to the intricate ecosystems such as the extraordinary coral reefs within the 10,700km2 iSimangaliso MPA – the biggest of the 42 – on the north east coast, our MPAs are sanctuaries for a rich and dazzling array of marine species, each one integral to the proper functioning of the marine environment.
Kruger National Parks of the oceans
Despite their critical role in protecting the ecological integrity of our oceans, MPAs are poorly understood and little known. “While many people are aware of the importance of terrestrial protected areas, such as nature reserves and game parks, few understand that the same level of protection can – and must – be afforded our ocean life as well,” says Dr. Mann. “MPAs are effectively ‘Kruger National Parks’ of our oceans and an investment in our own future well-being.” In this context, it’s worth noting that South Africa protects 7.8% of our land area, compared to only 5% of our oceans.
“MPAs are valuable safe havens that support not only the marine plants and animals but also the human populations,” Dr Mann explains. “Some of South Africa’s older MPAs have been shown to benefit local communities in terms of a tourism economy, employment, improved fishing and a much healthier marine biodiversity.”
Some specific benefits of MPAs
“MPAs are valuable safe havens that support not only the marine plants and animals but also the human populations. Some of South Africa’s older MPAs have been shown to benefit local communities in terms of a tourism economy, employment, improved fishing and a much healthier marine biodiversity.”Dr Judy Mann
- Marine areas that are in good shape and contain intact biodiversity will always attract tourists and ocean adventurers, like divers, which in turn creates sustainable employment opportunities for people from surrounding communities.
- MPAs enable fish stocks to increase in size and abundance and, over time, these spill over into adjacent fished areas to improve catches for fisheries.
- MPAs contribute to research. The pristine quality of these conservation areas gives an idea of what nature looks like when not impacted by humans. This forms a solid foundation for research into the natural world and necessary conservation techniques
- MPAs provide resilience to climate change Healthy oceans absorb enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and are home to plant life that produces oxygen, helping to buffer humans from the effects of climate change. They also protect coastal communities from the devastating effects of rising sea levels.
In South Africa, MPAs are declared through the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, and are the responsibility of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment. MPAs may contain different zones to accommodate various forms of human use. A controlled zone is an area where, inter alia, limited fishing is permitted. Restricted and Wilderness Zones rule out fishing altogether. “The strictest type of zonation is generally a no-take zone where no consumptive use of marine resources is permitted. Importantly, fewer than 10% of MPAs globally are zoned for no-take,” says Dr Bruce Mann, senior scientist at the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban.
Despite the formal protection accorded, considerable challenges confront our MPAs. The biggest include: a lack of funding and resources; the need for better management; insufficient law enforcement; a need to improve the management of cultural heritage (for example, spiritual sites) at MPAs to provide value to communities and tourists; and inadequate public awareness of MPAs, their role in the environment, and value to local communities.
“For in the end, we will conserve only what we love.”Baba Dioum
It’s this last challenge where we ordinary citizens can make a difference. By visiting any of our fabulous MPAs, learning about their unique ecosystems and rich biodiversity, and spreading the word about them, we can help to develop a deeper appreciation of our oceans and the essential role of MPAs in protecting them. To quote Senegalese environmentalist, Baba Dioum,“for in the end, we will conserve only what we love.”
Let’s hear our ocean’s voice
It’s time we loved and listened to our oceans. As Dr Judy Mann says, “through MPA Day we hope to give the ocean a voice that can be heard”.
Keen to know more?
- Join a virtual tour of some of the MPAs on August 1 at 14h00 (if you miss it, there will be a recording.)
- Enter the MPA photography competition, which runs until August 31.
- Find out more about MPAs here.
Edited by Gillian McAinsh https://gmcainsh.co.za