Photo Credit: Robin Adams

Many of our fishery resources in South Africa are overexploited or collapsed, or the stock status is simply unknown. It is critical that we build in mitigation and adaption measures to better conserve our oceans and aim for sustainable fisheries going forward. Part of the solution is marine protected areas (MPAs).

South Africa currently has 42 marine protected areas, covering 5,4% of our exclusive economic zone (EEZ). South Africa’s commitment is 10% in terms of the Convention of Biological Diversity of which we are a signatory.

‘MPAs support fisheries sustainability by providing safe spaces in which fish can breed undisturbed, and protect spawning and nursery areas that let young fish mature into adulthood,’ explains Dr Kerry Sink, Head of the Marine Unit at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), which produced the National Biodiversity Assessment. ‘MPAs also serve to maintain healthy ecosystems and will serve as a refuge for marine resources as climate change becomes more severe.’

In August 2020 the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, which has provided catalytic funding for MPAs over many years, approved a new round of funding for the South African MPA network project (SAMPAN).

‘Together with the associated management authorities, notably SANBI and the Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), we are taking MPA expansion another step forward to work towards the 10% target; this will cover South Africa’s 150 marine ecosystems and ecologically and biologically significant areas,’ says WWF-SA Senior Manager: Marine Programme, Craig Smith.

While MPA expansion is a necessity, it is often not well met by various user groups, as there is a major interest in extracting the marine resources from these areas, sometimes illegally. A key part of SAMPAN is capacitation of management authorities with training for MPA staff, including legislation and enforcement to improve the effectiveness of MPAs. SAMPAN will also partner with the West Indian Ocean Protected Areas Network (WIOPAN), so that all the countries involved, including the coastal states up the east coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean island states, can benefit from the network’s shared research and resources.

‘We need to know what our MPAs are protecting and to understand how they will be affected by species migration due to changes in ocean temperatures and acidity levels increasing as a result of climate change,’ Smith explains. ‘A number of species have already changed their distribution patterns, including anchovy and sardine, which are the target species of South Africa’s largest fishery. These have traditionally been fished along the west coast, but the bulk has shifted east of Cape Agulhas. This has additional huge socioeconomic implications for the anchovy- and sardine-processing factories and employees on the West Coast.’

SAMPAN will work on effective adaptive management of the MPAs and more effective co-management with adjacent communities. ‘Managing MPAs, like managing fisheries, is all about managing people; it’s critical if we want to conserve our oceans,’ says Smith. ‘An important part of SAMPAN is to ensure that the adjacent fishing communities are on board for the MPA expansion, participating in their management and deriving benefits.’

Benefits can include ecotourism activities inside the MPAs, such as boat-based whale watching and diving, and businesses, such as aquaponics and aqua ranching. In the Betty’s Bay MPA area there is a restaurant owned and run by the community at Stony Point. This MPA is a restricted or no-take zone but the local fishers can operate on either side of the MPA and supply the restaurant. MPAs vary from no-take to controlled harvesting with a permit to a combination of both. An example of this is the Table Mountain National Park MPA, which has six no-take areas within the MPA of approximately 1 000 km2 with the remainder of the MPA zoned as a controlled area.

If MPAs do not benefit the fishing communities, they do not develop a sense of ownership of them, and poaching syndicates will continue to take advantage of the dire socioeconomic condition of most fishing communities and use them to supply the illegal trade. It is extremely difficult to control poaching without community stewardship and ownership of the oceans, as government does not have sufficient capacity. Regrettably, government has not looked after the small-scale fishers and the small-scale fisheries policy is yet to be fully implemented.

‘The small-scale fishers have been given a raw deal and waited a long time for redress, which has still not happened,’ says Smith. ‘During this long wait resources have further declined. They need to be included in the value chain such as in the processing and marketing of fish and seafood, as this is where the money is made in order to compensate for the declining resources.’ In this way fishers could possibly reduce fishing effort on over-exploited resources and earn decently, thereby giving these resources a chance to recover, which, will, in turn, strengthen resilience for communities and marine ecosystems.’

To enable fishers to electronically record their catches the Abalobi app has been developed in partnership with WWF-SA. The platform also includes apps whereby the fishers can communicate with local restaurants, retailers and consumers so that they can sell their catch directly to them. They can also record their earnings and expenses. Abalobi has been piloted in Port Nolloth, Lamberts Bay, Struisbaai and Kleinmond and is growing in popularity with the fishers.

Smith explains that Cape bream, for example, was typically sold at R20 for five fish. Using Abalobi and selling direct, they can now get around R60/kg. A group of fishers now also have a vested interested in a processing plant in Cape Town.

Another MPA-aligned project is the BRUV project (baited remote underwater video), which is part of a long-term WWF-SA project in partnership with the Kogelberg small-scale fishers. The BRUV cameras record images of the marine life inside and outside of the marine protected area (MPA) on the Kogelberg Coast around Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond in the Southern Cape.

The BRUV project was initiated in collaboration with Mike Markovina, co-founder of the ocean research, conservation and documentary group, MovingSushi, ‘And the footage is incredible: we have images of sharks, fish species, rock lobster, octopus. It gives us such a good idea as to how the key linefish and lobster stocks are looking inside and outside the MPAs,’ says Smith.

‘These catalytic projects and innovative applications have multiple benefits: they enhance the monitoring of marine life, they help scientists and government to better quantify and conserve marine life, and they include communities in ocean stewardship,’ says Smith. ‘We need to significantly increase awareness of how important the oceans are to human well-being and the urgency to protect them, because without the oceans there won’t be life on Earth.’