Safeguarding the sea

Most fisheries will have collapsed by 2050 if current trends continue. With sea territory almost 4 000km long, is South Africa doing enough to protect its oceans?

Stretching far beyond the point where our land meets the sea, there is a second South Africa that is even bigger than the mainland.

Roughly 4 000km long and 370km wide, this massive swathe of deep blue water and submerged land pretty much belongs to South Africa in terms of international maritime law. As custodians and “owners” of this territory, we are free to exploit its riches – but also obliged to protect at least some of it for generations to come.

Yet as things stand now, just a tiny fraction of South Africa’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is off limits to industrial-scale fishing fleets, foreign oil rigs, sub-surface miners and other potentially harmful exploitation. On paper, protected marine areas cover just 0.4% of the country’s EEZ.

Late last year, the Cabinet announced a decision to expand this protected zone to 5% of the EEZ, but has not yet gazetted the new boundaries.

Marine scientists and conservation groups have welcomed this announcement, but say 5% still falls considerably short of internationally agreed targets to protect a minimum of 10% of the world’s seas before 2020. That is next year, barely six months away.

Starting point

Most marine scientists say that protecting just a 10th of the sea is a minimum starting point. Many suggest that governments should aim to protect at least 30-50% of the global oceans if depleted seafood stocks are to recover to healthy levels after recent decades of industrial-scale plunder.

Marine biologist Dr Enric Sala says almost 90% of large sea predators – such as tuna, sharks and groupers – have been fished out in the past century.

Nearly 40% of the world’s marine fisheries are overexploited or have already collapsed because of industrial fishing. And if current trends continue, most fisheries will have collapsed just 30 years from now.

To allow fish stocks to recover, Sala says, they need sanctuary areas. His studies have shown that the size and number of fish species in protected areas increase rapidly once fishing is halted. Thereafter, they start spreading out to replenish depleted areas of the sea.

“Simply put, if we do not kill the fish, they grow larger and produce an exponentially greater amount of larvae and eggs,” he says.

Protected zones

Much like national parks on dry land, marine protected areas (MPAs) are defined zones set aside for strict protection. Fishing, mining and other exploitation is banned or controlled in these areas.

Speaking at a recent workshop in Durban on the future of MPAs, marine scientist Dr Jean Harris said the Petroleum Agency of South Africa has granted oil and gas exploration rights for the majority of the EEZ.

This was part of Operation Phakisa (Sesotho for “hurry up”), a government drive to develop a new “oceans economy”. The project includes sinking several new offshore oil and gas wells, and expanding commercial aquaculture off the South African coast.

Harris, the director of the Wildoceans marine conservation group, told the workshop it is critical that future economic developments be underpinned by effective protection of the marine ecosystem.

Insurance policy

Professor Rashid Sumaila, a fisheries economist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, told the Durban workshop that MPAS should be seen as an insurance policy or pension scheme for the future.

Because the sea covers more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface area, there is a mistaken belief that the ocean is so vast that it is impossible to “mess it up … But that is a bit like a teacher deliberately allowing 70% of her class to fail.”

Apart from producing 100 million tonnes of seafood each year for nearly a billion people, Sumaila said that the ocean generates almost 50% of the planet’s oxygen and helps keep it habitable by absorbing the extra heat and carbon dioxide emissions from industrial activity.

So how is South Africa doing when it comes to protecting the ocean?

Sumaila did not answer this question directly, but pointed instead to the more ambitious actions being taken by other developing nations.

Legal action

The Cook Islands in the South Pacific, for example, are converting their entire EEZ into an MPA. While some fishing will still be allowed, all commercial fishing will be banned within a 50 nautical mile (92.6km) radius of the islands.

Elsewhere, the island nation of Palau is setting aside 80% of its maritime territory as a fully protected marine reserve.

Last year, Chile signed into law legal protection for more than 40% of its seawater boundaries, while the Seychelles is planning to set aside 30% of its EEZ as a protected area.

Two senior officials from the South African Department of Environmental Affairs expressed strong support for greater protection of the oceans. But they warned against the dangers of creating “paper parks”, where laws are not enforced.

Judy Beaumont, the deputy director general for oceans and coasts, said it is critical to ensure there is capacity to enforce protection measures, especially for MPAs that are far from the shore and difficult to patrol by ship.

To address this difficulty, she said, South Africa plans to introduce a new vessel-tracking system and other measures “to keep an eye out over what is happening in our waters”.

Beyond 5%

When asked if South Africa intends to move beyond its 5% target, department senior policy adviser Malta Qwathekana said: “There is a debate on whether 5% is enough or too little.”

To meet its obligations under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity treaty, she said some countries “will do 0% and others, maybe 100%”.

“You could declare 1 000 MPAs. But what is key is whether they are effectively managed and are ecologically resilient.”

“With respect, that sounds like a very carefully crafted government response – and it does not answer the question,” replied Dr Andrew Venter, chief executive of the Wildlands Conservation Trust.

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