World Oceans Day, celebrated on 8 June every year, is a day to say thank you to our magnificent oceans and celebrate the abundant life they sustain. It is also a day to raise awareness of the threats our oceans face and the critical need to protect them.
Did you know that over half of the oxygen we breathe comes from photosynthesizing seaweed, kelp forests and phytoplankton in our oceans? Indeed, they are the “lungs of our planet”, and it would be wise to keep them healthy. They also support a vast diversity of creatures, many of which we consider to be food. Scientists estimate that over 90% of ocean species have yet to be described.
South Africa’s vast shoreline extends for over 3000 km from Namibia on the Atlantic coast to subtropical Mozambique on the Indian Ocean. This results in an incredible diversity of habitats and ecosystems, from kelp forests and lagoons to mangrove swamps and reefs.
It is essential that we protect this biodiversity for generations to come.
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) play a critical role. Marine Protected Areas are geographically defined areas protected by law. The IUCN defines a Marine Protected Area as “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”
MPAs help to conserve our rich marine biodiversity – including unique, sensitive, threatened and endemic species – and to maintain essential ecosystem processes. They also help to manage marine areas for sustainable fishing, ensuring that people continue to benefit from the ocean.
According to Dr Alison Kock, marine biologist with South African National Parks (SANParks), South Africa has a network of 42 marine protected areas protecting 5.4% of our waters. She says that “a third of South Africa’s sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, mainly due to overfishing and habitat damage. Marine protected areas can help save them.
“South Africa is rated in the top five countries globally for having the most numbers of sharks and rays, with around 200 different species. We also have one of the highest levels of endemism (species only occurring in our oceans). As a result, the international scientific community identifies South Africa as a priority area for conserving sharks and rays.”
Dr Kock maintains that, with greater conservation effort, based on sound science, so much more can be done to conserve these and other marine animals.
We join her call for greater conservation effort to see that 5.4% of South Africa’s MPAs increases to 10%, “effectively protecting our endemic and threatened marine species”.