Environmentalist and guide Sinegugu Zukulu says the importance of a healthy marine ecosystem had become clear to many during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Based near the Pondoland Marine Protected Area (Hibberdene to Port St Johns), Zukulu was speaking ahead of the first MPA Day (Marine Protected Area, on Sunday, August 1. He said many people had been left with reduced or no income and had turned to catching fish or crustaceans.
South Africa boasts 41 MPAs along its vast coastline and offshore, which provide for the protection and spawning of nursery areas, allowing resource recovery to counteract rampant overfishing. These important areas provide employment, improved environmental health and sustainable food sources.
They are safe havens for fish and other marine life to thrive and mature into adulthood, with the result being bigger and more plentiful catches for anglers later on, and which have proved to be lifesaving for many struggling communities. MPAs are also crucial for job security in the fisheries industry.
With the KZN winter holidays starting this weekend and stringent Level 4 lockdown measures implemented this week due to a rampaging third Covid wave, the tourism industry is again among those severely affected, with many businesses unable to survive.
“The main impact of Covid has been that there were no tourists and reduced salaries for those employed in the tourism sector, which has definitely affected families who were reliant on these.
“People have had to try other means to survive and there have been more unemployed people relying on the ocean, for instance the collecting and catching of marine resources like crayfish and a lot of people selling fish to the community.
“This will have an impact on the marine natural resources, but there were many families who had to stay at home, who no longer had income from tourism and had limited sources of income,” said Zukulu, adding that many families also turned to farming commercial crops, such as sweet potatoes and udumbes.
“There has been a bumper harvest this year as people had time to grow these crops in bigger amounts. But the sad thing now is that our biggest market has been the informal market in Durban, but due to the reduced number of people going to work in Durban, the demand for these crops has slowed,” said Zukulu.
He added that while there were challenges establishing the MPA because communities did not understand the long term benefits, that had now changed.
“People have come to understand that the MPA is also for our benefit. The laws in place mean there are bigger fish when locals go fishing, and species that were once thought to be extinct in the area, are now readily available. People are finding bigger lobsters and other crustaceans which they can sell, or use to feed their own families,” said Zukulu.
SAAMBR (South African Association for Marine Biological Research) Conservation strategist Dr Judy Mann said: “MPAs are valuable safe havens that support, not only marine plants and animals, but also human populations as well.
“Some of South Africa’s older MPAs have shown to benefit local communities in terms of a tourism economy, employment, improved fishing and a much healthier marine biodiversity,” said Mann.
St Lucia-based tour operator Jeff Asherwood said Covid had caused significant job losses.
“The MPAs increase fish stocks which brings social and competitive anglers to the area, thereby creating jobs.
“The town of St Lucia survives on tourism, but with the international tourism trade disappearing, there have been significant job losses. Many have since turned to subsistence fishing to feed their families, and with a healthy marine system, this is a real possibility for locals.”
South African author and advocate for marine conservation, Fikile Hlatshwayo, fell in love with Isimangaliso MPA in northern KZN and is currently writing a book focusing on marine pollution and tourism.
Having grown up inland, Hlatshwayo said: “When I discovered how rich the ocean is and its incredible marine life, I knew that I had to write this book and use it to advocate for more MPAs. Ocean tourism provides tremendous opportunities for economic growth and job creation. This is evident at Isimangaliso MPA which employs people from local communities throughout the park at all levels, from rangers to land care workers, skippers, guides and hospitality staff.”
To highlight the important role MPAs play in conservation of marine biodiversity, an alliance of South African organisations, passionate about the protection of marine life and people, have established MPA Day as a way to educate and inspire people about these protected spaces and to draw attention to the benefits of MPAs.
The Independent on Saturday