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3 lessons we can learn from marine protection in sub-Saharan Africa


In 1995, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) established the Diani-Chale marine reserve. This was meant to be a marine protected area (MPA) that would protect and restore marine life, and restrict destructive human activities such as beach seining.

However, many members in the community were opposed to the MPA. One of the Kenya Wildlife Service shelters was set ablaze and mistrust towards the KWS simmered for a long time.

Today, things are changing. The community, county government and KWS are holding talks to jointly decide on how to operationalise the MPA. And across the African continent, we are seeing stories of transformation and hope in marine protection. Gabon has protected 28% of its national waters.

Madagascar is using locally managed marine areas to empower its communities. And the Seychelles has restructured its debt for marine conservation – the first in the world to do so.

Altogether, Africa has now protected over 1.8 million square kilometres, or 12%, of its waters. The future of Africa’s “blue economy” is brimming with promise but this depends on effective management. However, like the Diani-Chale marine reserve, many of the MPAs in this 12% are simply “paper parks” – MPAs drawn up on paper but not effectively managed.

Both the failures and the successes we see across the continent can teach us a lot about how to approach marine protection. Here are three key takeaways:

Conservation must be recognized for its essential role in food security

As the steady stream of overfishing and climate change drowns out the viability of fisheries, many fishing communities have been left desperate. Naturally, any measures deemed to be a further hindrance to fish catch, such as MPAs, are met with hostility.

However, MPAs have been clearly shown to increase the abundance and diversity of fish. Reserving these ocean refuges allows time for fish to grow bigger and reproduce more. And some of these fish will swim outside the MPA, causing spillover effects that benefit adjacent fisheries.

“I think the way we look at MPAs needs to change,” says Dr Arthur Tuda, Executive Secretary of the West Indian Ocean (WIO) Marine Science Association and contributing author to the “WIO Marine Protected Area Outlook” report. “We should see MPAs as an investment. Some investments can take a long time or a short time, depending on what you’re aiming for.

It can take a long time if the system was completely destroyed, so you have to close off the area to wait for restoration, because you won’t get much fish anyway. But if it is a system already providing food, you might want to control the way you harvest. MPAs can be designed as multiple-use areas, they can be zoned where one area is used and another is closed off.”

Community engagement determines success

In the Grand-Béréby region of Côte D’Ivoire, the aquatic species targeted for food were not only fish, but also turtles. In 2020, however, Grand-Béréby became the site of Côte D’Ivoire’s first MPA. Abou Bamba, Executive Secretary of the Abidjan Convention, highlights one factor that led to this success: trust.

“When we went to the villages, it was important for us to listen to them. They gave us a long list of their needs and, of course, marine protection was not included. They had basic needs like hospitals, roads, safe drinking water, jobs, food and so on,” Bamba says.

“For us to be credible, we need to balance conservation and environmental needs with the socioeconomic needs of the community. We won’t be credible if we go there and say: ‘We’re only here for the turtles, dolphins and whales’.”

For almost 10 years, the Abidjan Convention worked with the Ivorian government, and later with Conservation des Espèces Marine, the University of Exeter and other partners and donors, to gain the trust of the villagers by addressing some of their needs and securing their support.

Today, the hunting of turtles has fallen drastically. The Grand-Béréby MPA is now also able to provide employment opportunities in eco-tourism; restrict industrial foreign trawlers from pillaging local waters; promote sustainable, regulated fishing for artisanal fishers; and serve as an encouraging model for the other four MPAs that Côte D’Ivoire is planning to establish.

Communication can change the game

“For most of my time working in marine protection, we’ve communicated the benefits to nature of MPAs. It’s important now that we change the narrative to protecting nature for people,” says Dr Judy Mann-Lang, Conservation Strategist at the South African Association for Marine Biological Research.

Dr Mann-Lang has been working on marine communication for over 20 years. She’s helped organize national campaigns to raise awareness and public pressure to increase MPAs. This included a survey on how visitors of uShaka Sea World perceive MPAs.

“The word that came up most often was ‘no’,” she says. “As in, ‘no fishing’, ‘no diving’, ‘no this’, ‘no that’. If people perceive something as a ‘no place’, they’re not going to support it. However, if we turn that narrative around and start talking about how people can benefit from MPAs, people are far more likely to support it.”

The campaigning and long-term careful research on MPAs worked. On 23 May 2019, the South African government announced the creation of Marine Protected Areas South Africa and increased the percentage of its MPA coverage more than tenfold.

On 1 August 2021, South Africa celebrates its first Marine Protected Area Day. The world observes dozens of environmental awareness days that highlight environmental causes, but none of these days is dedicated to MPAs. Dr Mann-Lang’s dream is for Marine Protected Area Day to become internationally recognized as an official date to highlight the benefits of MPAs for people and planet.

Marine protection must be promoted, designed and evaluated within specific socio-economic, cultural and environmental contexts. One thing is sure, however: it is relevant for all of us, no matter where we are or where we come from.

Conservation, community engagement and communication are key to safeguarding the health of the ocean which ultimately determines our collective future.

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