Marine Protected Areas

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Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.


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Last updated: 20 Jan 2023 | Authors: Galaletsang Keebine


Protected areas are commonly defined utilising the International Union of Nature Conservations (IUNC, 2008) definition which states that a protected area is, “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” Therefore marine protected areas (MPAs) can be defined as nature reserves that are based in the ocean, protecting and restoring threatened marine fauna and flora.

South Africa’s 3000km coastline is bordered by the cold Atlantic Ocean to the west, the warm Indian Ocean to the east as well as the Southern Ocean (an intermediate of warm and cold waters), located at the southern boundary of the Indian Ocean. It is these variations in the climatic conditions of the oceans which make them home to richly diverse marine life spread across 150 marine ecosystems (as defined by the NBA) (Fig 1). The extent of these marine ecosystems also delineates the extent of the exclusive economic zones (EEZ’s) of South Africa’s oceans. The unique characteristics of these waters are what influence the diversity of life forms found within them. According to the NBA an estimated 33% of the marine species found in South Africa’s territorial waters are endemic (only found in the South African waters and nowhere else), positioning South Africa among the top 3 countries with the most endemic marine species. There are currently 42 marine protected areas (MPAs) in South Africa that were established to protect, preserve and conserve marine resources.

The protection of marine resources is directly addressed by sustainable development goal (SDG) 14 “Life Below Water“. SDG 14 seeks to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.  This is achieved through various ways some of which include limiting human access, regulating fishing practices as well as restoration of degraded and damaged ecosystems. Therefore, the establishment of MPAs has been a vital tool in ensuring the conservation of marine biological diversity (biodiversity) and restoring the productivity and health of marine ecosystems.

South Africa's Marine Protected Areas

Sustainable development goal 14, Life below water, directly advocates for the protection of marine ecosystems through SDG target 14.5 that has the mandate to conserve at least 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020,  through the establishment of indicator 14.5.1 Coverage of protected areas in relation to marine areas. This blog seeks to outline the various strides which have been enforced by South Africa in efforts to achieve the target 14.5.1 of SDG 14. 

Marine Protected Areas

What are MPAs?

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are sites that have been identified and selected to protect ecosystems,  serve as a sanctum for commercially harvested fish species to recover, and provide some benefits to humans. Prior to 2019, South Africa had only 26 MPAs which accounted for the protection of 0.4% of the territorial waters. In 2019 an additional 20 MPAs were proclaimed and adjustments (aggregations mainly) were made to the existing MPAs. This brought the total number of MPAs to 42. Bringing the total amount of marine protected areas to 5.4% (57 736 km2). This is an increase of approximately 14 fold from the previous marine protection status of 0.4%.

Marine protected areas are governed under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas (NEMPA) (Act 57 of 2003) by the government through the Department of Environment, Forestry & Fisheries (DEFF). The increase in the number of marine protected sites has ensured that 87% of the 150 ecosystems found in the oceans has some level of protection.

MPA’s level of protection can be classified into three zonal categories, namely: controlled areas, restricted areas and sanctuary areas. Controlled Areas – areas where prior permission has to be authorized for any activity that takes place there; Restricted Areas– Explicitly states that no fishing activities are permitted in these areas and Sanctuary/Wilderness Areas: restricted areas in which economic activities (except for some low-impact eco-tourism) is prohibited. The majority of the MPAs are divided into these zones while only a few are entirely zoned under a single category.  

Where are MPAs located?

The MPAs are located along the coastal regions of South Africa, with the newly proclaimed iSimangaliso located on the eastern region of the country (on the border with Mozambique) to the similarly newly proclaimed untrawled Orange Shelf Edge located in the western region of the country (on the Namibian border). In between these, are 39 pristine sites as well as an offshore MPA located on South Africa’s Prince Edward Islands.

Located below is an interactive inforgraphic with the locations of MPAs, click on an MPA to find out more information. 

What are the benefits of MPAs?

Marine protected areas have a variety of ecological, societal as well as economical benefits. These benefits are synonymous, meaning that the advancements in one field have beneficial implications for the other fields.  These benefits include but are not limited to the below listed: 

  • conservation of marine biological diversity and ecosystems.
  • providing protection to fish habitats,  feeding sites nurseries essential for the promotion of the increase in the number of fish available in an area.
  • providing opportunities for the protection of heritage and culture.
  • provide education and training on marine ecosystems and the interactions they have with humans. 
  • help with the creation of sustainable jobs. 
  • providing sites for nature-based recreation and tourism.
  • limiting human influence on sites to help them recover from other stresses such as increased
    ocean temperature;
  • protecting settlement and growth areas for marine species so as to provide spill-over addition in adjacent areas.
  • providing undisturbed control or reference sites serving as a baseline for scientific research.

MPAs protect marine ecosystems and marine biodiversity while serving as an insurance policy for sustainable ocean economies as well as healthy oceans, providing a safe haven for fish and invertebrates. 5% of South Africa’s territorial waters receives protection through the proclamation of marine protected areas. Of these, 31% of the ecosystems (47) are currently well protected, with approximately 41% (62 ecosystems) having a moderate protection level and 15% of the ecosystems (22) being poorly protected. Leaving 13% of ecosystems (19) with no protection at all. Therefore, only 87% of the 150 marine ecosystems are represented by the MPAs.

Marine Protected Areas Pressures

The NBA has listed 31 pressures affecting marine ecosystems which can be categorised into 9 major activities which influence the marine environment. The extent and impact of these pressures continue to increase as they are perpetuated by human activities.  Understanding the pressures which are exerted on the marine ecosystems is essential for the assessment of the ecosystem degradation as well as the ecological status of ecosystems (threats).  Listed below, categorised into the 9 overarching themes, are the 31 marine pressures, 58 % of which are attributed to the Fishing industry of South Africa. Although classified only under one of the nine groups, some of the pressures listed can be attributed into more than one of the groups. 

• Petroleum Activities

• Demersal Trawling (Inshore and Offshore)
• Crustacean Trawling
• Midwater Trawling
• Subsistence Fishing
• Recreational Fishing
• Small Pelagic Fishery
• Line fishing
• Demersal Longline Fishing
• Tuna Pole Fishing
• Pelagic Longline Fishing
• Netfishing: Gillnet Fishing
• Netfishing: Beach-seine Fishing
• West Coast Rock Lobster Harvesting
• South Coast Rock Lobster Harvesting
• Squid Harvesting
• Oyster Harvesting
• Abalone Harvesting
• Kelp Harvesting

• Mining

• Shark Control

• Port and Harbour Activities
• Coastal Development
• Coastal Disturbance

Climate Change

• Port and Harbour Activities
• Wastewater Discharge
• Ammunitions Dumping
• Dumping of Dredge Material
• Shipping

• Freshwater Flow Reduction
• Sea-based Aquaculture

• Invasive Species

It is these pressures that influence the threat level of marine ecosystems. Of the 150 ecosystems, half (75) are threatened, with just 1% (2 ecosystems) being critically endangered, 15% (22 ecosystems) endangered and the remaining 34% which is made up of 51 ecosystems classified as vulnerable.

MPA's and Policy

In line with the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Oceans Economy, South Africa was aiming towards protecting 10% of its oceans by 2020. Unfortunately, even with the demarcation of the new MPAs in 2019, South Africa was unable to achieve this benchmark, reaching only 5% protection coverage. However, this does not deter efforts to continue identifying and increasing the level of protection of the oceans. The section below will outline the various policies and mitigation plans South Africa has put in place towards ensuring an increase in the extent of ocean protection. 

Linking SDG 14 to SDG 15

Sustainable development goals are a global initiative to which the 193 UN member states have pledged allegiance.  Therefore, the member states are continuously aiming towards the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development, as per SDG 14 directive.In the context of global change, interactions between different factors are complex and interlinked. This is also the case between SDG targets where the success of a target can contribute to the success of another target (1) or negatively impact progress towards it (-1).  

As stated in the section above a total of 31 anthropogenic related activities were listed as marine ecosystem pressures, they disturb and alter the normal functioning of the marine ecosystems. Thus impeding the attainment of some targets in SDG 6 as well as SDG 15 while simultaneously promoting the attainments of others in SDG 15. That is to say, unstable, unhealthy and poorly managed marine ecosystems have direct implications on the quantity and quality of water available for human consumption and sanitation, SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation for all) as well as on various terrestrial ecosystems, SDG 15 (Life on Land). The particular interlinkages being between targets 6.6, 14.1, 14.2, 15.1, 15.2, 15.3, 15.5, 15.7, 15.a, 15.b and 15.c. 

Therefore, with increased marine ecosystem degradation in the forms of pollution, overexploitation, harbour development, mining, wastewater discharge etc. there will be a reduction in the amount of safe water that is available for human use and mixed outcomes for the terrestrial realm. 

Marine ecosystems in a good ecological condition can sustain life and offer provisioning and regulating services (NBA, 2018). This is a sentiment that is shared by Reid and Co (2017), that if the foundation (environmental SDGs), being SDG 14 and 15, is to crumble, be altered or become unstable, all the other SDG’s, which rely on healthy functioning ecosystems will inevitably deteriorate (Fig 2.1). Therefore, the maintenance, as well as protection of marine ecosystems, are essential for water security and promoting sustainable life on land.

International Policy Context

A key international instrument for marine protection and sustainability is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD was developed by the United Nations as a framework for “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.” The main objective of the CBD is to encourage UN member states to participate in actions, which will lead to a biologically diverse future. Furthermore, the CBD developed a set of 5 strategic global goals divided into 20 targets under the 2011-2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Targets 4, 5, 7 and 11, respectively promote the expansion of protected areas. Stipulated for target 11 is a threshold to have at least 10% of coastal and marine areas conserved through protected areas. South Africa currently falls short of the threshold at 5% (Fig 1.1.3).

National Policy Context

South Africa’s ocean, coastal and terrestrial zones are managed by the Department of Environment, Forestry & Fisheries (DEFF). The department is mandated by the constitution to ensure that everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well being as well as to protect the environment for the benefit of present and future generations. These are achieved by the department through the adaptations of international agreements, national legislation and the constitution.
The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) (Act 107 of 1998) has an objective which intends, “to provide for co-operative, environmental governance by establishing principles for decision-making on matters affecting the environment, institutions that will promote co-operative governance and procedures for co-ordinating environmental functions exercised by organs of state”. In order to achieve these, several policies have been adopted under the NEMA umbrella. These include the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas (NEMPA) (Act 57 of 2003), National Environmental Management of the Ocean white paper, South African Maritime Safety Authority Act (Act 5 OF 1998), National Environmental Management: Integrated Coastal Management (Act 24 of 2008). These acts form part of a larger strategy aimed towards managing and conserving ma biodiversity.
The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) is the institution that has been identified by state organs to monitor and report on the nations progress towards the implementation of the aforementioned policies. For this purpose, SANBI developed the the National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA). It’s function is to regularly monitor and report on country’s biodiversity status, focusing on the levels of protection and threat of the various South African ecosystems. The NBA is updated every five years and is led by SANBI in collaboration with the DEFF and various other organisations. The results of the NBA are then utilised by DEFF to inform the global CBD on the country’s biodiversity status and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the progress of SDGs (van Deventer et al., 2019).

Resources and Links

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) has quarterly releases of spatial datasets of South African protected areas, known as the South African Protected Areas Database (SAPAD).
Everything you need to know about Marine Protected Areas in South Africa blog by the Two Oceans Aquarium.
Marine realm technical report a product of the National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) which is the primary tool for monitoring and reporting on the state of biodiversity in South Africa.
South Africa's marine protected areas online resource created by the South African government in conjunction with SANBI.
SDG Indicator -14.5.1 Coverage of protected areas in relation to marine areas.
Atlas of marine protection, indicating the locations and demarcations of MPAs worldwide.