Sharks will find protection if the Protea zone, in the sea of Port Shepstone, is rubber-stamped as a Marine Protected Area.
Durban - Cabinet has approved of all four applications for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) from KwaZulu-Natal.

Those off KZN are an offshore extension of the existing 5.6km boundary off the iSimangaliso Wetland National Park to include deeper waters beyond the shelf edge; the Thukela Banks as a new MPA off the Thukela mouth area; an extension of the Aliwal Shoal MPA; and a new MPA off Port Shepstone including the Protea Banks.

Of the 22 MPAs originally proposed, only one off the Northern Cape and another off the Southern Cape were turned down.

Oceanographic Research Institute senior scientist Bruce Mann said law enforcement against prohibited activities, such as illegal fishing, would have to include satellite surveillance and the deployment of suitable vessels capable of conducting offshore law enforcement.

Although the public participation process has been completed, there will still be an opportunity for appeal once the MPAs are promulgated.

While the pro-MPA lobby points out the importance of preserving biodiversity, opponents could be people whose livelihoods are directly impacted such as commercial fishermen and boat charter operators, he said.

The proposed extension of the Marine Protected Area alongside the isiMangaliso Wetlands Park will benefit the coelacanth that was believed to be extinct until a trawler off East London caught one in its nets in 1938.

SA Association for Marine Biological Research (Saambr) conservation strategist Judy Mann-Lang said the SA study behind the proposal to extend existing MPAs and create new ones, is to fulfil South Africa’s commitment to meet the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s target of protecting 10% of maritime nations’ ocean space.

“Often it’s a case of simply demarcating unused ocean space on a map and ticking off a 10 percent target, but South Africa is trying to do it properly. It has involved a tremendous amount of thought, good science and thorough public participation.”

Mann-Lang credited Durban-born and bred Kerry Sink of the SA National Biodiversity Institute for being the driver behind the campaign, leading the scientists.

According to Mann-Lang, offshore expansion of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park as a protected area will safeguard the feeding grounds of critically endangered leatherback turtles and protect submarine canyons where coelacanths live.

“Whale sharks, mantas, marlin, broadbill spearfish, thresher sharks and even giant saw sharks occasionally pay the canyons a visit,” she said. “The deeper areas of the MPA are home to dense fields of seapens, beautiful soft corals adapted to living in sand and mud, bands of delicate glass sponges, and rocky cliffs with giant branching sponges that cascade down the steep walls.

“Spider crabs and deep water rock lobsters caught by fishermen in the south of the MPA towards Mozambique will be protected in the soft grounds of this MPA.”

This offshore expansion will protect the home of one of Earth’s most special and threatened fish in an area where they are at their shallowest and most accessible depths, she added.

Coelacanths, each recognised by their distinct spot patterns, live in this MPA.

On the uThukela MPA, Mann-Lang said uThukela meant “something that startles”.

The Aliwal Shoal already served as a divers’ paradise. Plans are afoot to protect more of the seascapes around it.

“Amazingly, when scientists explored the area using remotely operated vehicles and baited cameras, what they found in this MPA startled and surprised them.

“The largest 74 seabreams of the century have been seen on the deep reefs of this MPA, in addition to large adult poenskop or black musselcracker, yellowbelly and catface rock cod and even seahorses.”

She said fields of seapens occur in the muds with thistle corals and amazing seashells living in the gravel beds and between huge underwater dunes.

“The deep reefs are home to species of seaslug found only off the south and east coast of South Africa, including the beautiful frilled nudibranch, from which powerful compounds active against oesophagal cancer were discovered and are being further investigated for drug development.

“The discovery of a 20m-high rocky pinnacle covered in tall, dense yellow seafans and ancient, tall black coral trees was a highlight for researchers. These seafans and black corals are slow growing and make excellent indicators to help monitor the state of our oceans.

“In the uThukela MPA the endangered mud habitats and species that depend on the inflow of water from KZN’s largest river will be protected, as will the nursery areas and spawning grounds of commercially important fish and shark species.”

Mann-Lang said that in the past, the prawn trawl fishery caught hundreds of baby hammerhead sharks every year in this area, where they hide from larger predators in the rich, muddy water.

“By protecting these areas and assets, this MPA will protect our fish food stocks for the future and valuable ecotourism assets that can make our marine wildlife economy grow.”

There could be more marine life to discover off the uThukela River mouth.

She said the Aliwal Shoal supported a thriving scuba-diving industry and was famous for gatherings of ragged-tooth sharks and close encounters with these, tiger sharks and blacktip sharks, the beautiful corals growing on fossilised sand dunes and the wreck of the Produce.

“The expanded MPA is much bigger, and innovative zoning protects key deep reefs and the historic spawning grounds of the over- exploited and critically endangered seabream, the seventy-four. This seabream was once the most popular fish on KwaZulu-Natal menus but has been closed to fishing since 1988, after overfishing of breeding fish during spawning aggregations in the 1960s led to the collapse of the stock.

“Surfing dolphins and humpback whales are frequently seen in this beautiful part of southern KZN.

“The expanded Aliwal Shoal MPA extends between the Mzimayi Rivers and will include the iconic Greenpoint, the shore fishing alley of Mamba Alley - zoned to accommodate fishing - and the Clansthal and Hayes Rock areas.

The existing MPA provides protection to the Crown Area, the main area of the Aliwal Shoal Reef popular with divers, and the new area will help protect deep reef habitats and the mysterious species of the upper slope, which scientists are just starting to explore.

“Examples of recently sighted species include catsharks, spider crabs and fishes such as duckbills and rare lionfish.”

Finally, the Protea MPA, off Uvongo, protects an area where seven species of shark aggregate.

It extends from the Mzimkulu River in the north to the Mpenjati Estuary in the south.

“It is approximately 1200 square kilometres and covers a 40 to 2500m depth range. It adjoins the Trafalgar MPA and together they protect beautiful seascapes with diverse sea-weed gardens, interesting beach fossils and rich deep water ecosystems.

“The famous sardine run occurs in this area and new ecotourism initiatives are anticipated.

“The MPA supports an active shark diving industry as thousands of international tourists come to experience close encounters with tiger and other sharks. This is the only South African dive site where huge shoals of hammerheads have been observed and the only place on Earth where giant guitar sharks gather.

“Strong currents above the Vungu, Margate and Mzimbuvbu Canyons make work in the area difficult, so we still have much to discover.

“What scientists have seen when exploring the canyons by remotely operated underwater vehicle are undescribed fish, ragged-tooth sharks in deep caves on the canyon walls, possible new coral species and unusual comb jellies that are able to feed in the strong current while remaining attached to the seabed.”

Mann-Lang said the MPA was zoned to allow line-fishers to benefit adjacent to no-take zones, while sharks were fully protected throughout the MPA because of their ecotourism value.

Independent On Saturday