National Marine Protected Area Forum 2015
Mark and I belong to the few lucky people, who were invited to take part in the National Marine Protected Area Forum last week. The DEA (Department for Environmental Affairs) and WWF South Africa had chosen to host the meetings in the West Coast National Park. It indeed was a great place to experience the variety of values of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). They serve as important nursery, breeding and feeding grounds for many threatened and exploited fish species. MPAs however are not just about fish, they offer protection for entire ecosystems, which include birds, invertebrates, plants and many other organisms. Thus it was very pleasant to hear that South Africa is planning to declare more MPAs, including off-shore habitats, as part of the famous operation Phakisa (Sesotho: “Hurry-up”). We had the chance to talk to many people who are responsible for the management of MPAs and learned a lot about the challenges that come with it. In a country with such a beautiful cultural diversity as South Africa, it is especially important to respect and include the human dimensions of a protected coastline. Several fishermen from different communities all over the country had the chance to present their views and experiences with protected areas. They also learned more about the complex idea behind it and can take that knowledge home to their communities.
Surprisingly there were very few scientists invited to the Forum although they should be an integral part of the management. One of the most important things that I learned at the Forum was, how essential communication is for the success of such undertakings. Not only should the different responsibilities, study results and interests of the involved stakeholders be communicated clearly, but a vivid exchange of ideas and experiences in a national and international context can take the achievements of MPAs to the next level.
Whenever Mark and I weren't stuck on uncomfy chairs during midday heat listening to presentations, we tried to make most of our stay and explored the West Coast National Park. It is especially well known amongst birders for its fantastic bird hides. We usually got up a couple of hours before the programme started and saw some pretty cool and rare species. Besides loads of waders, we photographed beautiful flamingos in the sunset, many different raptors (also the endemic Black Harrier) and other cool species such as the White backed Mousebird and the Black Koorhaan. A huge highlight was a trip to a Cape Gannet and Cormorant colony on the Malgas Island near Langebaan, which is normally closed for the public. The National Park Manager organised several Marine Enforcement boats to give all participants a chance to see this magnificent place and we had a pretty hectic and awesome ride. As a whole-hearted ornithologist, Mark was in his happy place, wishing he had brought his bird-ringing equipment along. During our drives through the mainland parts of the park we also encountered herds of Elands, Kudus, a young puffadder, ostriches, tortoises and many others.
All in all, the trip to the MPA Forum was a great chance to meet people who are involved in similar projects as my fishermen surveys. Furthermore we managed to represent the scientific interests in MPAs during the conference and made sure other attendees learned about the work of the Nature’s Valley Trust. The West Coast NP is a great example of how species rich and diverse South Africa’s coastline is and that we carry a huge responsibility in conserving these areas in order to maintain their function for our own and future generations.