Many of our fishery resources in South Africa are overexploited or collapsed, and it is critical that we actively protect our oceans and implement systems for sustainable fisheries. 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 to achieve 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 young fish can mature into adulthood.

The WWF Nedbank Green Trust has been highly proactive about supporting a range of projects to conserve and legally protect our oceans which contain 150 marine ecosystems. Catalytic funding for MPA projects has been provided by the Trust over many years. The latest is the South African MPA network project (SAMPAN).

‘The initial focus was to take MPA expansion another step forward with the associated management authorities, and work towards the 10% target,’ says Craig Smith, WWF-SA Senior Manager of the Marine Programme who is heading the SAMPAN project.

‘However, what we found is that quite a few of the existing MPAs are not being sufficiently managed and there is resistance to some of them from local communities who feel they are shut out of their livelihoods. MPAs vary from no-take to controlled harvesting with a permit, to a combination of both. We therefore changed the project focus to a co-management pilot in partnership with fishers to ensure they benefit.’

The system is called OECM or “other effective area-based conservation measures”, and it is recognised internationally as a category of MPA, which accommodates the marine livelihoods and cultural and spiritual practices of the communities who co-manage them. Madagascar has followed this model with great effect.

‘We are in the process of establishing South Africa’s first OECM in the small-scale fishing area of Port St Johns on the Wild Coast,’ says Smith. ‘Six co-ops have been established here, each with 40 to 50 fishers, amounting to a total of about 300 fishers who have the right to fish commercially and for their own needs in this OECM area.’ It is adjacent to the 1237.3 km2 Pondoland MPA, which extends for 90km along the coast where there is constant encroachment and illegal fishing. It is also close to the 40.9 km2 Hluleka MPA, extending 3.7km along the coast.

Through the OECM system, which falls under small-scale fisheries legislation, the co-op members are permitted to fish from the shore or from small ski boats, and they may dive from shore for east coast rock lobster or use a pole and line.

‘Fishing is hard, and it takes skill and perseverance to be a fisher,’ says Smith. ‘The fishers were identified in a two-part process where officials from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment met with communities who wanted to be part of the process. The communities nominated fishers from their ranks and the officials then conducted in-depth interviews to make sure they were bona fide fishers. A requirement is that they have ten years or more experience as a fisher.’

Younger members can also work for the co-op but they cannot be members until they have ten years of experience. Succession is built into the system this way.

Port St Johns is a good place to start as the relationship between fisher communities and MPA authorities had broken down, and it was necessary to find an alternative model. The OECM system only allows for small-scale fishing and the bottom-up approach gives the power to communities to monitor outsiders and ensure there is proper collaboration with authorities.

‘The main fishery in Port St Johns is the East Coast Rock Lobster Fishery and we are working with them and the co-ops to improve responsible fishing practices,’ Smith explains. ‘The sale of East Coast Rock lobster needs to be managed with sustainable value chain partners so that it is fully traceable and the fishers participating in the scheme receive fair value.’ A high value species like east coast rock lobster becomes the flagship for all the marine resources.

They are looking at extending the development and investment model for a number of marine resources that will encourage more private companies to invest in sustainable initiatives like this. Seaweed harvesting for the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry is another high value they are working on. They have applied to the United Nations Development Programme for funding, and they should know by the end of the year if it has been successful.

Smith says the OECM system could prove to be a win-win as it reduces community reliance on grant funding and offers companies a return on investment.

‘We are hoping to use OECMs to expand marine conservation to other coastal areas. What is exciting is that we are in conversation with conservation organisations like WILDOCEAN in KZN who are exploring OECMs for that coastline. If done correctly, they reduce conflict and the responsibility of marine conservation is shared between communities and government.