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Protecting the marine treasure trove

Teaching and taxonomy are a winning formula for the coastline. By creating awareness of the fragility of marine ecosystems, and naming and classifying the organisms within those systems, the purpose of our marine protected areas (MPAs) is supported.

© Tanya Farber / WWF
A Whale Trail hiker makes her way down to the water's edge in the De Hoop Marine Protected Area in the Western Cape.

Like many South Africans, I sometimes feel the beach is my preferred natural habitat. I swim in the sea year-round, and few things make me happier than exploring a kelp forest. There are also many who just romp in the shallows or soak up the sun on the sand. This coastal habitat is not something that should be taken for granted. Beneath the surface of the sea is an oceanic treasure trove of plants and creatures that would take a lifetime to discover. 

The sea creatures, seaweeds and phytoplankton are also part of a delicate ecosystem that human activity and industry can easily destroy, and that is why South Africa, and the world, has designated ocean spaces known as marine protected areas (MPAs). It might sound like something for the scientists but rather think of it as an underwater nature reserve for the benefit of all. 

Why should we care about MPAs?

Did you know that South Africa has 42 such MPAs including Prince Edward Islands, and that they are designated for the long-term conservation of marine resources, ecosystem services, and cultural heritage? 

Approximately 8.2% of the world’s oceans are currently protected within MPAs, and in 2022, nearly 200 nations finalised the “30x30” global target to protect 30% of the world's ocean and land areas by 2030. This landmark agreement is vital towards building a biodiverse, productive, and resilient future. 

I recently caught up with my marine colleague Jade Garridigan at an MPA workshop in Kommetjie in Cape Town ahead of MPA Day on 1 August. 

She works for WWF South Africa as the coordinator of the South African Marine Protected Areas Network (SAMPAN) and had organised the workshop for 32 MPA personnel (field rangers, marine rangers and MPA scientists) from various government bodies. 

Jade told me, “MPAs are crucial to protect biodiversity, increase fish populations, and stave off the many threats faced by marine life. Climate change, overfishing, poaching and habitat disturbance are real threats to the ecosystem.” 

To this end, WWF hosts an annual MPA forum and various capacity-building workshops, while also contributing to developing policies and supporting governmental MPA Management authorities and coastal communities. 

© Thomas P. Peschak
Cape fur seals, seen diving here, are a common – and often entertaining – feature of Cape Town’s False Bay coastline. They form part of the marine life that is protected by an area being declared an MPA.
​Taxonomy is not just a fancy branch of science

“Taxonomy (the classification and naming of organisms) is a dying art – but it shouldn’t be.” 

That is the warning from Professor Tammy Robinson-Smythe from Stellenbosch University who focuses on management of invasive species in protected areas and who gave the training out in Kommetjie to upskill the 32 MPA staff in attendance. She says that taxonomists have been taken for granted and that no succession plans have been put in place as the older generations retire. 

“It should be a cool and exciting thing in the university curriculum and beyond in the practical world. Marine rangers need to be trained with many tools and taxonomy is one of them,” she says. 

WWF brought Tammy on board to highlight the occurrence of alien species within MPAs and to impart knowledge on how alien species end up on our coastline, the impact they have on the environment, how to identify them, and how to stop them spreading. 

For example, she explained that 90% of mussels you see on our West Coast today are the alien Mediterranean mussel species and though it first arrived in Saldanha Bay, someone picked it up and took it to Algoa Bay on South Africa’s east coast where it began to proliferate rapidly. She also explained that the bisexual mussel species, or dwarf mussel, comes from Chile and possibly made its way here on the hull of a ship that was on its way to Saldanha Bay. 

Another of the many species she taught the attendees about was the Pacific barnacle which comes from the American West Coast, and which looks so similar to a native species that people didn’t realise it was an alien. 

“As those involved in MPAs, we must collaborate with taxonomists as the specimens we can’t identify are often the most worrying. We must always keep a reference sample so we can help with classifications,” she says. 

One of the workshop attendees, Sisanda Mayekiso, a scientist at South African National Parks (SANParks) on the east coast of the country concurs and says that taxonomy goes hand in hand with genetics to close the information gap on different species and the statistics related to them. 

What also closes the information gap is awareness among the general public. It is because of this that Tammy is all about turning the abstract into the tangible. 
“I think people only care about things when they have an experience of them, like taking kids out and exposing them to the beauty of an MPA and explaining the benefits to them,” she explains. 

She laughs and says, “It might seem clandestine but that is the best way to get to adults too – through the children.” 

© Thomas P. Peschak
The stunning Hluleka Nature Reserve and marine protected area on the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape.
A plot twist

Tammy explains that invasive marine species or “alien species” are often bad news for marine habitats, but that one can’t make a blanket rule about this. 

A case in point is the Mediterranean mussel, also known as the ‘blue mussel’ because of how its shell gets worn down by bacteria, exposing the blue and white beneath it. She says that these mussels are the reason why the African black oystercatcher has been taken off the endangered list as it switched from feeding on native mussels to blue mussels, improving its reproductive potential in the process. 

“That is an example of an alien species that has done a lot for South Africa,” she says, but adds that habitat disturbance by alien species is more commonly a negative situation. 

© Thomas P. Peschak
African oystercatchers have benefited from a diet of Mediterranean mussels, an alien species.
Five facts: your cheat sheet to help others learn about MPAs

  • MPAs can be zoned to allow different forms of human use. No-take areas (no fishing or extractive use) are the most effective for conservation. 

  • Research done on linefish species in various MPAs has shown resident reef fishes increase in number and size over time in no-take areas, and then also spread into adjacent areas. 

  • MPAs contribute directly to human well-being through their roles in the local economy, tourism, education, emotional upliftment, research and climate change resilience.

  • South Africa’s MPAs now provide some protection to all identified marine ecoregions and 87% of ecosystem types. 

  • South Africa’s MPAs are generally well-sited, but gaps still occur on the west coast, in estuaries and the deep sea. 

© Thomas P. Peschak
Highly residential, slow-growing Red Roman spotted in the Pyramid Rock area of the Table Mountain Marine Protected Area.

So, if you had never heard of an MPA, or wondered what it was or why it’s important, consider the fact that MPAs help protect natural heritage habitats such as coral reefs, rocky reefs, kelp forests, rocky and sandy shores, estuaries, underwater canyons and many more. 

It makes my heart sing to imagine that all these beautiful coastal features – including the magical kelp forests – are being actively protected. And that’s not only because they’re such a treasure trove to look at. 

Most importantly, they are a fundamental part of the balance of nature that keeps our planet alive.

© Tanya Farber / WWF
A beautiful sunrise on the coast of the Eastern Cape is yet another reminder of the sheer beauty of the sea.
Tanya Farber Photo
Tanya Farber, Communications coordinator

Tanya Farber loves nature, photography and the written word


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