Durban - There are two very small, very isolated, but also very remarkable islands almost 2 000km south of the South African mainland.
Though the largest of these islands is just 25km long and 16km wide, the Prince Edward Islands are truly of global importance as they provide refuge for more than a third of the world’s sub-Antarctic fur seals, 44 percent of the global population of Wandering Albatrosses and more than 30 percent of the entire world population of the cormorant-like Crozet Shag.
Earlier this month the two islands, Marion and Prince Edward, were declared part of the new Prince Edward Islands Marine Protected Area, which aims to protect a much larger area of the deep-sea ecosystem.
The new marine protected area is almost 180 000km2, an area about the size of the Free State, Lesotho and Swaziland combined.
And early next week the South African government will be honoured by the WWF conservation group for setting aside the Prince Edward Islands for further formal protection.
The conservation group will present its Gift to the Earth award to Environment Minister Edna Molewa in recognition of the government’s commitment to protecting this unique marine environment.
“It is inspiring to see such environmental leadership in South Africa, and I applaud minister Molewa for her vision. Too little of the world’s precious oceans are protected from exploitation and this is a landmark victory for conservation,” WWF director-general Jim Leape said in a statement issued from the group’s Swiss headquarters.
The new protected area will be divided into three zones – a 12 nautical mile “no take” sanctuary zone where no fishing is allowed; four restricted zones where fishing is restricted; and a third “low-impact” controlled zone.
Though the Prince Edward Islands themselves are critical in providing a breeding refuge for an incredible variety of birds and animals, the health of these creatures ultimately depends on the health of the surrounding ocean.
“Protecting the oceans is uniquely difficult because large parts of the high seas are beyond national jurisdiction,” according to Birdlife South Africa.
Fortunately, the Prince Edward Islands and the surrounding ocean are part of South African territory and can enjoy legal protection against international fishing fleets.
Yet, although South Africa has been lauded for establishing this new ocean sanctuary, it remains to be seen whether the government can turn words into deeds by patrolling the area effectively.
Since the control of the fisheries management was shifted from the Department of Environment Affairs to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in a cabinet reshuffle a few years back, there have been very few patrols in the deep ocean.
Several prominent local scientists also voice concern in the latest edition of the SA Journal of Science that the country’s hitherto proud research record in the Southern Ocean is now “bedevilled by political manoeuvring”.
The scientists, including Professor Steven Chown and Anne Treasure of the University of Cape Town, also warn that the new R1.3-billion state-of-the-art research vessel SA Agulhas II is in danger of becoming an “embarrassing white elephant” unless the government acts swiftly to address a range of management, administration and financial problems. - The Mercury