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CER celebrates the expansion of SA’s marine protected areas

1 November 2018 at 9:00 am

Complex benthic habitat in South Africa’s marine environment. Image courtesy of WWF-SA/Thomas P. Peschak ©
Complex benthic habitat in South Africa’s marine environment. Image courtesy of WWF-SA/Thomas P. Peschak ©

On 24 October 2018, our Cabinet approved a network of 20 marine protected areas, which will expand protection to at least 5% of South Africa’s marine environment.

This marine protected area network will provide a multitude of benefits to both biodiversity and people. It will protect a representative set of ecosystem types and species, many of which are found only in South Africa. It will contribute to the protection of at least 125 habitat types (increasing habitat representation from 60% to 94%); protect 46 of the 54 habitat types that currently have no protection (including 10 of the 13 critically endangered habitats). It will protect key spawning, breeding, nursery, feeding, and aggregation areas for a rich array of marine fauna, including threatened shark, turtle and seabird species. It will protect unique and diverse habitat types and features including cold water corals, a fossilised yellow wood forest, canyons, reefs, mangroves, coastal wetlands, mud habitats, gravel habitats and canyons.

Importantly, the network will bolster the natural capital that underpins South Africa’s rapidly growing marine economy and support sectors that are major economic drivers including fishing and eco-tourism and the jobs and livelihoods that these sectors sustain. Notably, marine protected areas are powerful fisheries management tools that enable recovery of depleted and over-exploited stocks. Further, this network will support the multiple ecosystem services that marine environments provide, such as food provision, climate regulation and recreation. Finally, there are multitudes of opportunities, many undiscovered, that intact marine resources (living and non-living) provide, in areas as diverse as medicine, food production and cosmetics. Protecting marine ecosystems also ensures that these opportunities remain available to future generations.

This marine protected area network is also distinctive in relation to the outstanding approach and process utilised by the Department of Environmental Affairs and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). More than a decade of work went into the design of this network. It made use of systematic planning to minimise potential impacts and overlap with, for example, extractive, shipping and commercial fishing industries whilst achieving conservation objectives. The planning was integrated; involving multiple sectors, agencies, government departments and experts. The outcome of this process is the start of a spatially efficient network with both conservation benefits and low socio-economic cost. Importantly, stakeholder engagement and public participation, undertaken by the Department of Environmental Affairs, was remarkable.

This network of marine protected areas is both part of and is particularly critical in light of Operation Phakisa, which seeks to rapidly unlock the economic potential of our oceans. Currently, 95% of our exclusive economic zone has been leased for offshore oil and gas. The extent of planned marine petroleum activities, including seismic surveys, can potentially result in considerable negative environmental impacts. Marine phosphate mining poses a considerable threat to offshore environments. Further, rights have been granted for a range of other extractive practices including coastal and offshore mineral sand mining and unconventional gas exploration such as marine ‘fracking’. Operation Phakisa further aims to ‘’increase aquaculture outputs five-fold”, establish new port infrastructure and increase shipping.  These rapidly expanding marine activities will add to existing pressures on marine ecosystems. It is thus crucial that ocean economic activities are moderated by protection; to ensure that our ocean ecosystems remain healthy and able to continue providing vital ecosystem services. This network is a step in the right direction in ensuring a sustainable and balanced blue economy.

The Centre for Environmental Rights has been advocating for the declaration of a network of marine protected areas for many years. At the start of 2015 the Centre started work on a three year project called Safeguarding our Seabed. The strategic intent of the project was to promote the long-term ecological integrity of South Africa’s offshore marine habitats through pursuing the establishment of a moratorium on bulk marine sediment mining, advocating for a representative network of marine protected areas, and supporting the development of effective marine spatial planning.  In pursuit of a moratorium on bulk marine sediment mining, we launched and coordinated the Safeguard our Seabed Coalition, made up of organisations that represent commercial and small-scale fishing, the environmental sector and organised labour. This project came to an end last year. Since the beginning of this year, the Centre has been part of a broad-based coalition of organisations, including WILDOCEANS, Ocean Unite, WWF-SA, and the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR), that have been supporting the expansion of South Africa’s marine protected areas. In June this year this coalition launched a campaign called “Only This Much”.

In order to begin implementation of this marine protected areas network, final Declaration Notices and Regulations will have to be published in the Government Gazette. This is acknowledged by Cabinet – the Cabinet meeting statement explicitly highlights that “the MPAs will be published in the Government Gazette” as the next step. Thereafter, in terms of the Protected Areas Act, the Minister must assign a management authority for each of the marine protected areas. The designated management authority must then develop and submit management plans for approval by the Minister, within twelve months of being designated. Nevertheless, a number of immediate benefits will ensue on publication of Notices and Regulations. For instance, Section 48(1) of the Protected Areas Act states that “no person may conduct commercial prospecting or mining, exploration, production or related activities” in a marine protected area). Thus, from publication, all mineral and petroleum extraction and related activities, including seismic surveys, will be prohibited within the network.

Notably, a potential challenge to the implementation of this network, raised by a number of stakeholders, is compliance monitoring and enforcement. Fortunately, Operation Phakisa includes a commitment to an “Enhanced and coordinated enforcement programme” (Initiative 5). This has a number of objectives and commitments including: an enforcement pilot project; the establishment of a committee and working group to enhance and coordinate enforcement; undertaking of a process to optimise existing enforcement capacity by expanding the mandate of various enforcement agencies; legal reform; undertaking a collaborative study to asses current capabilities and gaps in enforcement; and the development of a work plan to ensure inter-departmental coordination. A key proposal identified in the Operation Phakisa enforcement initiative is to ensure patrols of marine protected areas. Further, internationally, there has been rapid innovation in areas that make proper monitoring and enforcement possible, such as vessel monitoring systems and the use of satellite, remote sensing and radar technology to support compliance. Thus, there are a range of solutions to enforcement challenges.

South Africa has made various international and national policy commitments to increased marine protection. These include our Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) commitment to protect at least 10% of our coastal and marine environment by 2020. The implementation of the 20 Operation Phakisa marine protected areas is a considerable step towards meeting these longer-term targets. Protecting these areas will contribute to safeguarding our marine natural heritage for the benefit and well-being of both current and future generations of South Africans.  For this, the Centre for Environmental Rights acknowledges the work of the Department of Environmental Affairs, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the late Minister Molewa, the Acting Minister Hanekom, Cabinet and the many, many other stakeholders who contributed to this considerable milestone in ocean protection.

ENDS

Section 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

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