South Africa's Endangered Marine Wildlife and Marine Protected Areas

South Africa's Endangered Marine Wildlife and Marine Protected Areas
The world’s least explored and most vulnerable ecosystem—the ocean—is under threat, with more than 80% of marine pollution coming from land-based activities. Once seen as too remote to harm, the deep sea is facing pressures from mining, pollution, overfishing and more—only 13% of the ocean remains as wilderness. At first glance, the oceans appear pristine but they are fast becoming the biggest dumping site on Earth. This ignorance, whether due to a lack of knowledge about what is going on with our oceans or just simply taking them for granted, is increasingly damaging the health of our oceans, as well as, our own health, economy and security.
The confluence of two currents, the cold Benguela current on the west coast and the warm Agulhas current on the east coast, contributes to the high levels of marine biodiversity and endemic species in South African waters. South Africa is home to the largest colony of African penguins—found on St Croix Island, Algoa Bay in the Eastern Cape. Since the 1920s, more than a million breeding pairs of African penguins inhabiting South Africa’s coast have shrunk to a population of fewer than 18,000 pairs. The largest contributing factor to this historic decline has been the poaching of their eggs and stripping their island colonies of the guano that they needed to make nests. These historical practices have since been banned.
Yet, African penguins (which are endangered) are now faced with the challenges of oil spills and the loss of prey populations. Climate change, which is causing sea surface temperatures to rise globally, may be impacting the abundance of prey by causing a shift in prey distribution to locations beyond the historic breeding ranges of penguins. Consequently, the adults must travel farther and expend more energy in order to find adequate food for themselves and their chicks; the result is an increase in mortality due to starvation. African penguins are competing with commercial fisheries for sardines and anchovies (two of the main prey species of the penguins)—Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) list sardines as orange implying the public should think twice before buying or eating them. A reduced fish quota for sardines and anchovies, or a suspension of the fisheries once the fish population falls below critical ecological thresholds are urgently needed. Not only to sustain livelihoods but also, African penguin populations.
South Africa is positioned along one of the world’s busiest shipping routes with over 120 million tonnes of oil and bunker fuel carried aboard ships each year. Making it especially vulnerable to accidental oil spills. Since 1948, there have been thirteen major oil spill events off the coast of South Africa. In June 2000, MV Treasure ran aground in Table Bay causing the oiling of over 20,000 African penguins and killing over 2000 African penguins. In 2016, Algoa Bay was opened up to bunkering in an effort to boost the region’s economy. Plans to develop the bay into a major refuelling hub for international vessels have generated widespread controversy, with conservationists and the tourism sector saying the risk of pollution is too high. Ship-to-ship bunkering involves the transfer of fuel from one vessel to another at sea and allows ships to save money by refuelling without entering a port. The Marine Pollution Act 6 of 1981 prohibits such routine bunkering off the South African coast because it is an inherently risky operation. Penguins are especially prone to oiling because they are flightless, and so are unable to fly over polluted areas.
Many organisations such as SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), Dyer Island Conservation Trust, and Raggy Charters with Penguin Research Fund in Port Elizabeth, are working to halt the decline of the African penguin. Measures include monitoring population trends, hand-rearing and releasing abandoned chicks, establishing artificial nests, and proclaiming marine reserves in which fishing is prohibited. Research shows that oiled African penguins which are cleaned and released have lower breeding success than birds free of oil. Penguins are long-lived, only laying one or two eggs each year, and take several months to raise their offspring. This slow growth restricts their ability to recover quickly from both natural and human-caused disasters.
Sea turtles are among the most widely ranging creatures on Earth. The waters surrounding South Africa are visited by five of the seven species of turtle—green turtle (endangered), hawksbill turtle (critically endangered), Olive Ridley turtle (vulnerable), leatherback turtle (critically endangered), and loggerhead turtle (near threatened), with both the leatherback and loggerhead species nesting in KwaZulu-Natal. South Africa’s 53-year long conservation and monitoring programme is one of the largest continuous sea turtle monitoring and protection efforts in the world and, is arguably one of the greatest conservation success stories on the African continent. iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which was South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999, protects beach nesting sites of loggerhead turtles and leatherback turtles. Monitors are brought in each nesting season to record statistics and, help educate locals on the plight of turtles and to prevent the looting of their eggs.
Sea turtles have played vital roles in maintaining the health of the world’s oceans for more than 100 million years. Leatherback turtles play a pivotal ecological role as a top jellyfish predators. Without leatherbacks, jellyfish populations would explode which would be detrimental to the recovery of fish stocks since jellyfish prey on fish eggs and larvae. All about balance! Something we, humans, are yet to get right—as Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed.’ Leatherbacks are susceptible to marine pollution, especially plastic bags which they often mistake for jellyfish. Of all the plastic produced each year, an estimated 8 million tonnes of it leak into the ocean. With South Africa ranked as one of the top 20 worst polluters of plastic in the oceans and, global predictions that there will be more plastic (by weight) in the oceans than fish by 2050, more must be done by the government and the public to resolve this problem.
Nesting sea turtles help beaches by depositing their eggs in the sand. The eggshells and unhatched eggs left behind provide important nutrients that nourish dune vegetation, such as beach grasses, which stabilise dunes and help to prevent coastal erosion. And so, ultimately protects their own nesting habitat. They are also an important source of income for coastal residents through turtle-watching eco-tourism. Coastal tourism has been estimated at generating approximately R135 billion to South Africa’s economy annually. Research has shown that sea turtle eco-tourism can generate three times the income than by selling sea turtle parts—proving they are worth more alive!

Coral reefs are home to hawksbill turtles, which specialise in eating a handful of species of sponges. This diet allows less common types of sponges to grow, which increases the biodiversity on the reef. Without hawksbills, sponges can overgrow and suffocate slow-growing corals causing them to die. As reefs become more and more threatened by climate change and other impacts, the role of the hawksbill turtle on the reef is even more vital. Green sea turtles primarily eat seagrasses, acting as aquatic lawnmowers, which helps keep seagrass beds healthy. All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow. For this reason, the oceans must not be looked at for their economic value alone—more marine protected areas (MPAs) should be encouraged and declared.


South Africa has a coastline of 3900 kilometres, including the sub-antarctic islands, where there are 42 (5% ocean protection) Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The MPAs offers protection to spawning and nursery areas of fish, providing areas for resource recovery. Multiple jobs are associated with the marine wildlife economy; tour guiding, scuba diving, shark cage diving, bird/whale watching, etc. Marine Protected Areas can promote local entrepreneurs—local communities can capitalise on opportunities (set up ‘family run’ restaurants, ‘home-stay' type accommodation, craftwork, etc) from the influx of tourists who come to otherwise unknown areas because of their protected status. They create climate resilience areas—healthy shorelines protect and buffer coastal communities and infrastructures from extreme weather and sea-level rise. Furthermore, they are wonderful resources for ‘outdoor classrooms’ and provide learning opportunities for environmental education, natural and cultural heritage, and fisheries management. Research can be carried out within them to help understand what a healthy ecosystem looks like and, can measure impacts of climate change, pressures from fishing, etc.

Marine Protected Areas prove that sustainable management and development can be achieved—benefiting all from the economy, to people, to the environment. However, when authorities created the Marine Protected Areas they did not declare any natural borders but, rather a GPS point on a map. This is a critical error as marine animals have no knowledge of GPS points and, will keep moving within their natural borders making them extremely vulnerable as soon as they move out of the protected area. Immediate action should be implemented to change this, to ensure those found in the MPAs do not get overfished.

It's not only oil spills and plastic polluting the oceans, poorly treated or untreated sewage also ends up in our oceans. South Africa’s municipal sewage system has largely collapsed—of the 824 treatment plants, it is estimated that only sixty release clean water. Raw or partially treated sewage flows into rivers throughout the country. There are currently fourteen deep-sea marine outfalls along the coast of South Africa. A marine outfall is a pipeline that is designed to disperse any wastewater and general sewage (the sewage is not treated but is just screened to remove large objects) in deep-sea far from the shore. Off the coast of Cape Town, there are three marine outfalls located at Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay. It is inadvisable to place marine outfalls in bays because they are known as retentive zones—wastewater pumped into a bay never really makes it out; it simply gets retained in that environment. However, the Green Point marine outfall is on the edge of Table Bay and is in a wind shadow so, the prevailing wind, that would blow the wastewater offshore, doesn’t reach it. Not only does this pose a huge problem to marine life but, also greatly affects tourism and the economy. Furthermore, two of the marine outfalls, Camps Bay and Hout Bay, fall within the Table Mountain Marine Protected Area—fragile environments, such as MPAs, should not be in close proximity to effluent outfalls. The situation is made worse by the fact that communities are expanding quickly, while infrastructure is not. This inevitably leads to overloading, which in turn leads to spillages.
Municipalities, especially smaller ones, do not have the financial resources or skills to properly address the challenges of sewage processing and disposal. South Africa cannot continue to allow incompetent or disinterested local municipalities to mismanage the future of its water supplies. Ideally, all sewage works should be upgraded to cope with the hydraulic loads they are confronting. This is capital intensive and could cost up to R30 billion, which is simply not available under current economic conditions. It's not realistic either, given South Africa’s infrastructure decay, public finances and the apparent lack of political will.
The official water department estimates indicate that R80 billion is needed over the next decade to overcome the maintenance backlog in water infrastructure. But annual budgetary allocations are generally below this sum, while many municipalities and other state entities either underspend their budgets or fritter away much of the money. If the national, provincial and municipal governments cannot properly direct funds to maintain infrastructure, environmental degradation will worsen, and South Africa will always be at risk of not having sufficient clean water and slowly eroding its natural resource assets.

People are, at heart, all environmentalists, once they have sufficient wealth and security to concern themselves with things beyond their immediate survival. But, the lack of importance, awareness and knowledge of conservation crimes, including water pollution, can be expected to continue until South Africa’s society reaches a critical mass of relatively affluent and educated people. Only then will natural resource perturbation acquire a higher status amongst the general population. If you aren’t actively standing up for what is right, you will forever be a part of the problem!

The ocean—one of the most mysterious and diverse places on Earth. Producing 70% of our oxygen, absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide and, driving the Earth’s weather systems. Yet still, we seem to have little respect for our oceans, with the state of the oceans reflecting our bad habits. Leave nothing but footprints at the beach, swap single-use plastics for sustainable alternatives, only buy or eat sustainably sourced fish, conserve water, etc…because every single thing we do has an impact on our planet!

So I ask you, are you going to continue to take the ocean for granted?

Shop for a cause

Conservation Mag is an Amazon affiliate, by clicking on the links to do your shopping you support us without paying anything extra. 
Shop on |

 Thank you! 🥰 Conservation Mag is reader-supported. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.


Subscribe: Stories about wildlife, habitats and heroes

Welcome to Conservation Mag where we celebrate nature preservation through ecotourism and wildlife travel while we look for ways to preserve our heritage by supporting nature conservation. Starting conversations about the positive action people like you and I are taking to make a change.