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Marine Protected Areas - What do they mean and what are their benefits?“By 2050 all commercial fish stocks in our ocean will be extinct”“60% of our coral reefs are expected to be lost by 2030 if present rates of decline continue”. Pick up any reading material on our oceans and you are bombarded by depressing figures such as the above.

Hard to accept facts these may be, but the reality is that we all need to do something now to stop this decline. It is no longer about a few 'green' fanatics wanting to save the earth but rather about ensuring food and water security for everyone. Complacency and ignorance of what happens below the waters surface is no longer an excuse and we each need to do our bit to save the “Blue Planet”

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1 of 10: Marine Protected Areas are critical to conserving habitats and a full range of species that allows for healthy eco-system functioning.

Although the oceans cover more than 70% of the earth’s surface and play a critical role in regulating our climate and providing food, resources and other services to society, less than 0.1% of our world’s oceans are formally protected, compared to some 10% of our land. Whilst this low level of formal protection was acceptable in the past, advancing technology and progressive over-exploitation of marine resources has led to the rapid expansion of the human footprint on our oceans. Today, some 75% of the world’s commercial fish stocks are either fully or partially overexploited, with eight out of 10 of the South African most important commercial Line fish species being at severe risk. Many marine industries are hugely wasteful and have widespread ecosystem impacts, beyond their impact on their target resource. It is estimated that some 30% of the world’s fish catches are wasted and discarded back into the sea. The increasing number of people living on the coasts and the rapid rise in consumer demand for fish threaten marine biodiversity across the oceans.

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2 of 10: Many threatened and endangered species such as the African Penguin are protected within the boundaries of marine protected areas and this allows for populations to hopefully recover.

More and more countries are starting to realize the importance of proper management of marine resources, with South Africa being at the forefront of developing long-term strategies for the conservation of marine resources. One of the strategies is to make use of Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s). It must be remembered that MPA’s on their own will not solve all the resource problems and broader ecosystem based approaches to fishing must also be carried out.

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3 of 10: Cape Fur Seal pups playfighting.

A Marine Protected Area is an area of sea and coastline that is especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biodiversity and natural and cultural resources through being managed in a structured and legal manner. Different levels of MPA also exist and vary from complete no-take zones where nothing may be disturbed, caught or removed, such as at the De Hoop MPA in the southern Cape, through to partial-take MPA’s which have a suite of regulations that determine what activities may take place in which zone. By establishing MPA’s we can help to restore balance in the use of our oceans, safeguarding fish stocks and protecting local habitats while providing long-term solutions for communities living adjacent to the sea.

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4 of 10: Many of South Africa's marine protected areas are popular tourism destinations and bring economic benefits to the areas that they are located in.

If properly designed and managed MPA’s play vitally important roles in protecting marine habitats and biodiversity through:-

•    Conserving representative samples of  biodiversity and ecosystems
•    Protecting critical sites for the reproduction and growth of species
•    Allowing sites to recover from the stresses of exploitation and other human related impacts
•    Providing settlement and growth areas for marine species so as to provide for spillover of these species into surrounding exploited areas.
•    Providing areas for marine based environmental education and for raising awareness regarding marine related issues.
•    Providing sites for nature-based tourism which is carried out in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner
•    Providing undisturbed sites for scientific research which allow long term monitoring which helps to guide the management of the MPA’s.

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5 of 10: Bull rays feed in the shallows of Langebaan Lagoon, one of South Africa's marine protected areas.

With regards to fisheries stock management, MPA’s provide benefits to protecting specific life stages of commercial species and in many cases protect the spawning and nursery grounds. These spawning grounds then act as dispersion centers for the supply of larvae and juveniles into the fishing grounds. Through habitat protection, feeding grounds are also protected. With the spillover of commercial species from MPA’s local communities can improved catch rates. 

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6 of 10: The extremly popular Otter Trail and Whale Trail both lie in South Africa's marine protected areas. 

Not only do MPA’s provide benefit to fisheries management and species protection, but they also provide benefits to ecosystem services in the form of coastal protection, waste assimilation and flood management. Coral reefs for example protect the shoreline from adverse weather conditions, like those recently seen on the KwaZulu Natal Coast in 2007 & 2008. They provide sediment production and sediment retention with the skeletons of these corals assisting in the growth of mangrove forests and seagrass beds which in turn also assist in shoreline stability and protection. Increasing knowledge in the defense mechanisms of marine plants and animals is revealing an array of biochemical compounds some of which have been identified as having value as sunscreens, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and other related medical applications.

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7 of 10: Well managed MPAs allow for healthy fisheries.

From a South African perspective we are blessed with an extremely diverse and rich coastal and marine zone which is fed by the Agulhas Current on the east coast and which brings warm waters down from the tropics, while on the west coast, cold, nutrient-rich upwelled water drifts northwards. This brings a staggering 10 000 odd species of marine plants and animals to our waters. Each of these resources is however limited in what it can yield on a sustainable basis and repeated removal of these yields will ultimately result in the collapse of the resource. Due to the immense diversity of the marine environment it is therefore necessary to ensure that there is a full suite of MPA’s that protect the representivity of our marine ecosystems and biodiversity.  The globally accepted norm is to formally protect 20% of a countries coastline within MPA’s. This however is often impractical as it does not consider the variety of habitats and bio-regions and South Africa is therefore trying to ensure that the full representivity of habitats is protected. Currently about 18% of the coastline is protected, while no off-shore MPA’s are currently in place.

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8 of 10: A Kelp Gull nests close to the coastline within the De Hoop Marine Protected Area.

South Africa currently has 24 Marine Protected Areas with the Prince Edward Islands MPA in the Southern Oceans and Amathole MPA near East London being the most recently declared. in October 2008. These MPA’s are managed through the Department of Environmental Affairs: Branch Oceans & Coasts and in most cases Marine & Coastal Management has signed Memorandum of Agreements with the local conservation agencies to ensure effective management of the MPA’s. While certain habitats are very well protected, others such as the West Coast and offshore areas are totally neglected.

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9 of 10: Small-scale fishers are particularly dependant on helathy oceans and MPAs can support their liveliehoods through the provision of healthy fish stocks.

As the public increasingly realizes the importance of Marine Protected Areas, it is hoped that they will play an ever more important role in the protection of the common heritage of all South Africans and that there will be a willingness to participate and play a part in decision making. Most of the conservation agencies are hoping to develop volunteer groups that will be able to assist with various marine related projects. Fishers and other users are asked to find out the specific regulations within the MPA’s that they are visiting and to consider more environmentally acceptable methods of fishing, perhaps also partaking in tag and release projects. 

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10 of 10: Ploughshare snails congregate on a jellyfish that has been stranded upon the coastline within a marine protected area. Undisturbed beachs such as those found within MPAs are found to have higher densities of marine invertebrates that form part of the baseline for healthy marine ecosystems.

Marine Protected Areas are an insurance policy towards healthy ocean systems and are also an investment towards the Planets and our future well being – Please support them!


Peter Chadwick
Author: Peter ChadwickWebsite: http://www.peterchadwick.co.zaEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
As a dedicated conservationist, Peter Chadwick has 30 years strategic and operational conservation experience in terrestrial and marine protected area management. He has worked within all of the major biomes in southern Africa as well as having provided expert conservation advice at a global level. His conservation and wildlife photography is a natural extension to his conservation work where he has numerous opportunities to capture photographs that showcase the beauty and complexity of the outdoors. Peter’s photography is internationally recognized, with this work appearing globally in a wide range of print and electronic media.