South Africa has announced plans for a major expansion of “national parks in the sea”, by creating a new 70 000km2 network of marine protected areas.
The plans include an almost tenfold expansion of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park’s sea boundaries in KwaZulu-Natal, along with a new protected area off the Thukela River, a new shark and fish sanctuary off the Protea Banks on the south coast, and expansions to the Aliwal Shoal protected area.
If the draft proposals are accepted, this would put these new protected areas permanently out of reach for oil and gas exploration, and other ecologically damaging ventures.
South Africa already has 23 such sea parks, known officially as marine protected areas (MPAs), with the oldest, Tsitsikamma, established in 1964. Details of the new MPAs have been published in a 336-page notice in the Government Gazette by Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa.
Andrew Zaloumis, iSimangaliso Wetland Park’s chief executive, said if the proposals were approved, iSimangaliso would become one of the largest parks in the country.
The plans to include the Thukela River mouth are set as it contains important undersea canyons and mud and gravel seabed habitats that serve as a nursery area for several species, including a large commercial prawn fishery.
Between Port Shepstone and San Lameer, a much larger offshore protected area would be created around the existing Trafalgar Marine Reserve to protect several shark and fish species, submarine canyons and deep water reefs.
Elsewhere along South Africa’s coastline, new or expanded MPAs have also been proposed next to the Addo Elephant Park, the Namaqua National Park, the Orange River mouth and two seamounts south of Cape Town and Mossel Bay.
While the proposed declaration of almost 70 000km2 of marine protected areas has been hailed as a milestone, the latest plans should also be seen in a much broader context of collapsed sea fish stocks and increasing exploitation of the world’s oceans.
Conservation group WWF notes that oceans cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet less than 2.3 percent of the world’s oceans are formally protected, compared to about 10 percent of land surface.
Environmental Affairs spokesperson Zolile Nqayi said the new proposed MPAs were identified through Operation Phakisa, a presidential project to fast-track the development of the oceans economy.
Centre for Environmental Rights spokesperson Saul Roux said: “This network is a step in the right direction in ensuring a sustainable and balanced blue economy.”
However, WWF emphasised that it was vital to ensure such parks had adequate budgets, staff and enforcement capacity.
An assessment of the country’s existing MPAs in 2014 showed that budgets were decreasing year on year and that “enforcement continues to be a major challenge in most MPAs”.