Picture: joakant/Pixabay
Picture: joakant/Pixabay

10 reasons to celebrate Marine Protected Areas Day

By Dominic Naidoo Time of article published Jul 29, 2021

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August 1, 2021 marks South Africa’s inaugural Marine Protected Areas Day.

South Africa will be the first individual country to have a day dedicated to highlighting the importance and diversity of our amazing marine protected areas.

A marine protected area (MPA) is an area of the sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biodiversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means.

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These include marine parks, nature reserves and locally managed marine areas that protect reefs, seagrass beds, shipwrecks, archaeological sites, tidal lagoons, mudflats, salt marshes, mangroves, rock platforms, underwater areas on the coast and the seabed in deep water, as well as the open ocean.

South Africa has 42 MPA’s, all of which protect and conserve crucial habitats for our unique, diverse, and commercially important ocean species.

Here are 10 reasons why you should celebrate South Africa’s first Marine Protected Areas Day

1. Conserving biodiversity and ecosystems

Changes that occur within coastal and marine ecosystems happen on a scale so complex that it is sometimes difficult to realise the magnitude or nature of the changes. Sadly, the damage or loss done to these marine ecosystems are only visible after it has happened.

Without MPAs and ‘no-take’ reserves, marine biodiversity is likely to be lost before we know of its existence or importance for humanity, or how it should be managed for long-term sustainability.

Most species and biological communities have evolved some capacity to survive or recover after periodic stresses such as high or low salinities, temperatures, or severe storms.

2. Centres of dispersal

Marine Protected Areas may provide reservoirs of genetic material for the natural or assisted recovery of areas affected by pollution, overfishing or natural disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes, or tidal waves. Natural havens in the ocean have long provided on-site reservoirs of genetic material.

3. Support for fishery stability

Marine protected areas with ‘no-take’ (no fishing) reserves can play an important role in stopping and possibly recovering the decline in fish populations and productivity globally.

MPA’s offer protection for the multiple life-stages of commercial fish species offers safe feeding grounds which would allow these fish populations to grow and provide a spillover of excess fish into areas where fishing is permitted.

4. Repairing the damage

Marine reserves with undisturbed biodiversity and ecosystems are vitally important in the search for effective methods to mitigate damage and restore damaged ecosystems. Many reports of the condition of the world’s coral reefs indicate that efforts to restore or rehabilitate damaged ecosystems are an increasingly important management issue, particularly to those close to major cities and heavily populated coasts.

Removing threats to marine ecosystems and fostering natural recovery processes should be the focus of restoration needs.

5. Tourism and Recreation

Tourism is a primary source of income in many developing countries and frequently exceeds the value, particularly the foreign currency value, of marine fisheries in those nations, including South Africa.

Government statistics report that the country’s fishing industry is worth a little over R6 billion currently while coastal tourism contributed approximately R11.9 billion across the country in 2015.

6. Education and Training

Marine protected areas provide opportunities for people to experience and study marine plants and animals that are undisturbed by fishing and other impacts. These marine reserves can become places where people can observe natural processes occur and use these observations to further scientific databases and promote marine conservation.

Another important educational role of MPAs is in the training of resource management staff. Most staff come from backgrounds that offer limited exposure to the nature and values of marine plants, animals, and ecological processes. Training courses at MPA’s can provide a valuable introduction and contribute to the understanding of these values.

7. Heritage and Culture

MPA’s play an important role in educating local communities and visitors about the culture, history, and heritage of the areas they protect. In most coastal areas there is a history of use, culture and values associated with specific areas in the marine environment.

There are often links to prehistoric use and legend, and traditional practices of use that are important in the understanding of present values and future choices that we give ourselves. A good example would be historic shipwrecks of our coastlines which portray stories of settlement, colonialism, and new beginnings.

Educating visitors about sites of historic significance helps illustrate the relationship between people and marine environments.

8. Ecological offsets

Even though MPA’s provide immense benefits for both conservation and commercial fishing, conflict does sometimes arise. Recent research and scientific reviews have consistently identified the high potential value of MPAs, and specifically ‘no-take’ reserves, for fisheries management purposes.

Many fisheries in South Africa and around the world operate within communities where there is a concern at the noticeable, long-term decline in fish stocks, signs of environmental damage and impacts on subsistence fishermen and women.

Fisheries should be managed in a way that is ecologically sustainable with high importance being placed on protecting certain areas from any impacts to ensure the future viability and resilience of marine species and their respective habitats. These “offset” areas would be able to compensate for those where fishing and other activities are still allowed.

For example, we should be protecting a reasonable area of the marine environment to continue exploiting other non-protected areas.

9. Understanding climate impacts

Our oceans are experiencing the effects of a changing climate. The evidence is there, ocean surface temperatures are warming, warmer oceans lead to an increase in extreme weather events around the world such as the ones we are seeing today.

The ability to predict how the ocean and its ecosystems respond to these ongoing changes could help us properly plan a suitable response. Measurements of long-term changes from researching MPAs are the main way that the changes in biodiversity can be determined.

10. The ocean is a massive carbon sink

Probably the single most important reason to celebrate our oceans and push for their continued protection is that it is one of our biggest tools in fighting climate change. Most people would know that land-based flora absorbs around a third of all carbon emitted but very few know that the ocean absorbs the same amount as well.

Algae and kelp forests absorb more carbon than rainforests of the same size. This carbon dioxide is filtered to the deepest depths of the ocean to be reabsorbed into the rocky bottom. More marine protected areas would lead to the oceans increased ability to absorb carbon from our atmosphere.

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