Happy birthday, Bird Island!

There is reason for celebration in the Addo Elephant National Park (AENP) this year, as it has been a decade since the proclamation of the Bird Island Marine Protected Area (MPA) off Algoa Bay.

The past 10 years have seen the end of many atrocities which were common around this special marine area.

The Bird Island MPA was officially proclaimed by former minister of environmental affairs, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, in the Government Gazette on June 4, 2004.

This cemented the park’s eastern boundary in Algoa Bay and made AENP the only national park in the world home to the Big 7, which includes the seasonal great white shark and southern right whale to the traditional Big 5.

The Bird Island group (Bird, Seal and Stag islands) is home to several species of red-data listed seabirds, including the Cape gannett, roseate tern and African penguin.

Added to that, the reefs around the islands are important for abalone and line fish. At the time, Bird Island was increasingly becoming the target of abalone poachers, prioritising the protection of the islands.

Yet, the declaration of the MPA initially had little effect on the plundering of abalone, leading to the implementation of complete ban on diving in 2006.

This had some effect, but the pillage continued.

At the same time, the area around the Bird Island MPA became a popular spot for recreational and commercial fishing vessels. It was an attractive choice, because the MPA created a safe haven for overexploited line and reef fish to breed. This impact spilled over into the surrounding area.

Unfortunately, some were not prepared to fish outside the area and were regularly caught fishing inside it.

In order to provide an ever-vigilant presence in the area, SANParks created a marine section of rangers in 2008. The nine-person team is alternatively based on Bird Island and on vessels in and around the MPA. It has made a number of arrests and confiscated numerous vessels over the years.

Plans are now afoot to add another 120 000 hectares to the current 7 000, which will stretch for about 75 kilometres along the coast from the Port of Ngqura to Cannon Rocks near Alexandria. Offshore, it will extend for as far as 20 kilometres at its widest point.

Planning started in 1997, under the Greater Addo project. Research into baseline environmental and fisheries data was carried out from 2006 to 2012, systematic conservation and draft management plans have been completed and an economic cost-benefit analysis has been carried out.

Nearly eight years of consultation have taken place between SANParks, marine and coastal management, the departments of environmental affairs and forests and fisheries, and key stakeholders such as commercial fisheries (squid, line fish, hake, sardine, shark, and long line), theCoega Industrial Development Zone, Transnet National Ports Authority, recreational fishers and the general public.

The most recent of these was in last August when SANParks and the departments of environmental affairs and agriculture, forestry and fisheries met with commercial fisheries in Port Elizabeth to discuss the proposed MPA off Algoa Bay – a biodiversity hot spot along the South African coast.

This area is crucial, as it is home to the highest percentage of endemic line-fish species, hosts the largest breeding populations of gannets and penguins and has the longest, most productive sandy beach in the southern hemisphere.

The main objectives of the MPA are to conserve biodiversity, focus on threatened, overexploited species, contribute to rebuilding fish stocks and minimising conflict and cost to fisheries activities.

Input from the sessions with industries was used in a proposal of regulations to environmental affairs: oceans and coasts which will now prepare the document for minister Edna Molewa.

She will then have to gazette an “Intent to declare an MPA”, which will afford the public 60 days’ comment, during which time further public meetings will be held.

Issues raised will have to be addressed by the department within 30 days. Thereafter, the minister will hopefully gazette the declaration of the MPA.



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