10 reasons to celebrate Africa’s first-ever Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Day

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On Sunday, 1 August 2021, a consortium of South African organisations will be the first, globally, to celebrate a day dedicated to the conservation of critical ocean areas which allow marine life to thrive, reproduce and grow. Along the South African coastline, there are 42 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) which provide crucial safe havens for animals and plants in the ocean, and also support human communities.

Puffadder shy shark is one of the smaller shark species protected in the cooler waters of our Southern and Western Cape coastal MPAs. Photographer: Mark van Coller

“While many people are aware of the importance of terrestrial protected areas, such as nature reserves and game parks, few understand that the same level of protection can – and must – be afforded our ocean life as well,” explained Dr Judy Mann, Conservation Strategist at SAAMBR (South African Association for Marine Biological Research). “These are effectively the ‘Kruger National Parks of the oceans and an investment in our own future well-being.”

In South Africa, MPAs are declared through the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, and are the responsibility of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. On land, South Africa protects 7.8 percent of our land area, whereas in the ocean, it’s only 5 percent of the territory.

These beautiful cold water reefs are great attractions to divers, who enjoy them while diving in an MPA. Photographer: Mark van Coller

To highlight the important role MPAs play in conservation of marine biodiversity, the consortium of South African organisations, passionate about the protection of marine life and people, have established MPA Day as a way to educate and inspire others about the proper management of these protected spaces and to draw attention to the benefits which MPAs provide. Here’s a look at some of the reasons to celebrate MPA Day on 1 August.

Divers come from all over the world to experience the magnificent diving in Sodwana Bay in the Isimangaliso MPA. This boosts the local economy. Photographer: Eve Marshall

1. MPAs ensure biodiversity
They protect a range of marine ecosystems which are home to rare or endangered species, as well as uniquely South African animals and plants that live nowhere else in the world. They protect critical nursery habitats for marine creatures and provide a space for resident fish species to increase in number and size, securing a vital food source for humans.

2. MPAs support adjacent fisheries
MPAs enable fish stocks to increase in size and abundance and, over time, these spill over into adjacent fished areas to improve catches for fisheries.

3. MPAs ensure healthy marine animals
Through the establishment of MPAs, marine animals are genetically stronger, which means they can better adapt to changes in the ocean.

4. MPAs protect cultural heritage
The ocean is a revered space for cleansing, worship, inspiration and rejuvenation, and by protecting these spaces, traditional practices can continue, connecting present generations with cultural roots.

5. MPAs promote tourism
These areas are invaluable spaces for recreational activities, including snorkelling, scuba diving, whale watching and turtle nesting, among others. Some of the country’s MPAs are internationally-renowned dive sites, attracting tourists to the region.

6. MPAs are outdoor classrooms
From pupils in foundation phase through to students at tertiary level, MPAs act as educational centres for learning in the environment, providing a direct connection to the natural world.

7. MPAs contribute to research
The pristine quality of these conservation areas gives an idea of what nature looks like when not impacted by humans. This forms a solid foundation for research into the natural world and necessary conservation techniques.

8. MPAs provide resilience to climate change
Healthy oceans absorb enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and are home to plant life that produces oxygen, helping to buffer humans from the effects of climate change. They also protect coastal communities from the devastating effects of rising sea levels.

9. MPAs help with job creation
The marine wildlife economy paves the way for sustainable job creation. The recreational benefits of MPAs – snorkelling, scuba diving and the like – provides employment in the tourism industry. The conservation side also creates jobs in the form of field rangers, park managers, hospitality and maintenance staff. The many jobs associated with fisheries also rely on healthy marine ecosystems.

10. MPAs are medically useful
Marine-based animals use complex compounds to defend themselves, some of which can be extracted and used in the creation of drugs that may fight off viruses, bacteria and cancer cells.

MPAs provide important areas for learning about nature, in nature. Photographer: Judy Mann

How can you celebrate MPA Day?

• Start a conversation about MPAs using the hashtags #MPAday #Conservation #Marine #MPA #MarineProtectedArea and share what you know with others.

• Learn as much as you can and discover the wealth of diverse and beautiful ocean creatures, plants and habitats within our MPAs and how protecting these ecosystems can help people.

• Celebrate MPAs in whatever way you can because, whether you live inland or on the coast, everyone benefits from well-managed protected areas and depends on the ocean for survival.

• Visit one of the country’s incredible MPA areas and discover the wonders for yourself.

• If you are a fisherman, respect the boundaries of MPAs and teach fellow anglers about the importance of MPAs.

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