Celebrating Marine Protected Area Day: Why It Matters

South Africa is blessed with an incredibly beautiful and diverse marine environment. Although many people don’t realise it, our country relies heavily on the ocean for food, jobs (e.g., fisheries), fun, and for our general well-being (it even regulates our climate). Unfortunately, many human activities can be destructive to our marine habitats. That makes Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, necessary and very important. This year, on 1 August, South Africans will celebrate MPA Day for the first time.

MPAs: What are they?

Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, have been set aside for protection from harmful activities to marine life. This means that certain activities such as fishing, development, etc. for conservation purposes may be limited in these areas. South Africa boasts 42 MPAs in our territorial waters. It is also important to note that not all MPAs are on the coast. MPAs can include offshore (further from land) areas, islands, parts of the seabed, or areas of open ocean.

MPAs benefit everyone

MPAs serve several very important functions, the most apparent being to protect marine ecosystems (and all their species) against destruction. This includes providing a safe place for fish and other species to breed, spawn, and grow. Many species, like fish, need nursery areas where their young can grow safely into adults. In this way, fish stocks inside and outside protected areas can be sustained because fish from healthy populations inside MPAs spill over to adjacent areas, ensuring food security. MPAs consequently also support jobs – such as those of fishermen – by protecting fish stocks, but also those in the tourism industry, e.g., tour guides. MPAs are also invaluable places of education and research and protect sites of cultural and spiritual significance. So, protecting South Africa’s marine environment benefits all of us too.

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MPA’s can’t prevent all harm to nature

The invisible boundaries of MPAs can’t stop all impacts. Whales, fish, turtles, and even small invertebrates can get caught in marine plastic pollution. Plastic bottles, packaging, and discarded fishing line, nets, and ropes (most fishing gear is made from plastic) that are thrown into the sea or come from land by being blown by the wind or washed down stormwater drains and rivers to the sea cause plastic pollution. Floating pollution can damage coral reefs, or cover – and smother – marine life on the seafloor. Some animals accidentally eat plastic, which can cause choking and suffocation, damage their internal organs, or lead to them starving to death (plastic has no nutritional value and can take a long time to exit an animal’s gut, leading to starvation). Many plastics float in water and can move far from their source, harming ocean life even within MPAs.

What impact can one person have on these issues?

Every person can help protect the ocean by not littering, reducing the amount of waste they generate, choosing not to buy and use single-use plastics (including products wrapped in lots of plastic), and by recycling. Conserving areas of land, coast, and the open ocean is very important, but that does not free people from the responsibility of being good stewards outside of these protected areas.

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Let’s Celebrate MPA day

So, celebrate the day and visit an MPA near you. And remember that what we do at home (especially those of us living in coastal towns), may impact the ocean, even in protected areas.

Click here to learn more about MPA day and MPAs in South Africa. To find out what you can do to help stop plastic pollution everywhere, be sure to visit the SST Operation Clean Spot (OCS) page to find a clean-up near you or learn more about the marine environment on the African Waste Academy YouTube Channel.

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