A group of young marine scientists are questioning why government is stalling on declaring a network of Marine Protection Areas (MPAs). Fred Kockott reports
While conservationists worldwide battle to digest news that oil drilling is to start in Africa’s oldest national parks, Virunga and Saronga – both of them UNESCO World Heritage sites – in South Africa tough questions are being asked about why the government is stalling on declaring a network of Marine Protect Areas (MPAs).
Until now, South Africa’s minister of environmental affairs, Edna Molewa has remained mum on accusations that her department has become subservient to the petroleum industry, which has been granted coastal gas and oil exploration leases covering more than 90% of SA’s exclusive economic zone.
Among those raising the heat are a group of young marine scientists, Youth for MPAs. The group recently sent a letter to the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) asking why an expanded network of MPAs had not yet been created in line with international commitments. The government has pledged to increase the network of MPAs to at least 10% by 2020, but at present only 0.4 % of our ocean is protected.
“Where’s our 5%?”
Although Molewa published draft notices in February 2016 to declare 21 new MPAs, increasing protection to 5%, nothing has arisen from the comprehensive public participation process which ended on May 3, 2016.
Toward the end of last year, DEA spokesman, Albi Modise, said Molewa was expected to make a pronouncement soon. A year has since passed and people are still in the dark, including leading marine scientists who played critical roles in the mapping out the proposed network of extended MPAs.
The DEA has also not answered recent queries from Youth for MPAs, so the group held an “Only This Much” demonstration in Durban this week, holding placards and chanting: “Where’s our 5%?”.
According to Saul Roux, of the Centre for Environmental Rights, the benefits of expanding the MPA network were unquestionable.
They would protect fragile marine eco-systems and bolster the rapidly growing marine economy, in particular fishing and tourism, and the jobs and livelihoods these sectors sustain.
Like others, Roux is questioning why the minister is stalling.
“The question has to be asked whether this is due to offshore oil and gas and mineral interests,” said Roux.
At this week’s “Only This Much” demonstration, Nobuhle Mpanza, a marine biology student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, asked: “What is the hold-up in implementing the 22 MPAs to get to the 5% that we need now? The 5% was meant to be declared in 2016, which means we are two years behind schedule. If there are any valid reasons for the delay, why hasn’t the minister informed the public? What strategy has the minister put in place to reach the 10% by 2020?”
This very question is likely to dominate discussion at this year’s four-day Ocean Stewards Science Session, which gets under way at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on Monday. Sponsored by the Blue Fund – a Grindrod Bank and WildTrust marine conservation initiative – the event brings together more than 30 marine biology students and a cohort of leading marine scientists. The focus: critical issues affecting the oceans, career opportunities and the latest developments in marine science.
The key note address is titled: Why MPAs are an important toolkit for healthy oceans.
It will be delivered by Professor George Branch, the co-author of two award-winning books, Living Shores of southern Africa and Two Oceans – a Field Guide to the Marine Life of Southern Africa. Branch is widely recognised for his lifetime contributions to marine science, and will certainly provide lively insight into why our oceans need as much protection as they can get – a cause that many want Molewa to embrace more passionately. – Roving Reporters.
Click here to read about how George Branch inspired last year’s wave of Ocean Stewards