A Conversation with Judy Mann, Conservation Strategist at the South African Association for Marine Biological Research
On 1 August 2021, South Africans came together to celebrate their Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, Day. MPAs can be defined as an area of ocean or coastline that has been specially-designated for protection for the benefit of nature and people.
MPA Day, the first-ever in South Africa – or indeed, anywhere in the world, helped spread the word about the value of MPAs in South Africa and how they preserve oceans for both people and nature.
The South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) played a big role in not only making MPA Day a reality, but also in galvanizing support for declaring these MPAs in the first place. SAAMBR Conservation Strategist Judy Mann notes proudly that their and other organization’s communications initiatives helped support scientific calls for more MPAs. These calls eventually came to fruition when South Africa proclaimed 20 marine protected areas in 2019, bringing the total amount of its Exclusive Economic Zone under protection from 0.4% to 5.4%.
The road towards proclaiming more MPAs
“South African scientists had been working on expanding the MPA network for a long time,” Judy explains. “Starting in the 1990s, scientists began mapping coastal and offshore biodiversity, pinpointing where the kelp forests, seamounts, salt marshes, coral reefs, etc. were. Then, researchers investigated where people were actually using the ocean, i.e. shipping lanes, fishing areas, recreational spots, and more. Finally, they created a map demonstrating where it would be best to site the MPAs to best protect biodiversity while minimizing conflicts with people.”
Equally important as this scientifically backed map, Judy notes, was the public consultation process with communities regularly using the ocean. The planning team met with hundreds of stakeholders over many years. “And then, at the end of the consultation process, when the 20 potential MPAs had been identified, we realized that a big communications campaign would be needed if we wanted to get them proclaimed by the government.”
Research was also undertaken with visitors to the uShaka Sea World aquarium. “What we learned there was that very few people knew what a Marine Protected Area is, much less the benefits of MPAs to nature and people,” she said. Previously, she says, we [SAAMBR] had only described MPAs in terms of how they protected nature – i.e., how they could protect whales, or sharks, or coral reefs – but not people. The narrative was framed entirely around nature and science, not around how MPAs could make a difference in the lives of coastal populations or their benefits to the wider community. “There are people in South Africa,” Judy continues, “who think that MPAs deprive people of their livelihoods, and those who think that they are essential conservation tools. We needed to bridge this gap.”
And so SAAMBR installed a new Marine Protected Areas exhibit at the uShaka Sea World aquarium, designed to introduce visitors to the ecosystems and marine life that would be protected under MPAs. They created communication materials explaining how MPAs benefited people, MPAs protect different ecosystems underwater, just as protected areas do on land. protecting food sources and South Africans’ natural heritage. A key element to the campaign was the use of maps to show where the MPAs are located around the South African coast. The exhibit augmented the new Marine Protected Areas website for South Africa, which outlines – with one-of-a-kind images and video footage – the benefits and purpose of each MPA in South Africa.
A Day Devoted to MPAs
But even once the MPAs were proclaimed, SAAMBR – and their many partners – knew that their work wasn’t finished. “At the aquarium, we plan our communication initiatives around different environmental days – World Ocean Day, African Penguin Day, Marine Week, etc. We did some quick research and found that no one had an MPA Day anywhere in the world. So we thought – why not start one?”
Judy reached out to conservation partners and was joined by a small team of volunteers willing to work on creating an MPA Day, with the goal of increasing awareness of MPAs and their role in supporting people and nature. MPA Day is further intended to help people understand the relevance of the ocean to daily life and empower people to act.
“MPA Day is really the story of passionate people with no budget but who really cared and wanted to make a difference,” she said. Together, the team settled on 1 August 2021 and began a communications campaign, including on social media, their organizations’ websites, and in traditional media to build up excitement ahead of the inaugural day. On 1 August, they held a webinar and conducted virtual tours of some of South Africa’s MPAs (COVID compliant), allowing the 200 attendees to understand the breadth of beauty and biodiversity protected by these areas.
“We’ve now had requests from eight other countries wanting to join MPA Day next year, including from the Western Indian Ocean region, as well as West Africa,” Judy shares. The team is set to begin consultations on 2022’s MPA Day in February, and Judy was excited at the prospect of other countries joining in the celebrations this year.
Her advice to others wishing to join MPA Day or help expand support for MPAs in their country?
But please – “Join MPA Day!” Judy says with a smile. “There’s no franchise on MPA Day, it’s just about working together to share the value of MPAs to people and building support for these important tools in our conservation toolbox. We would love the idea to spread around the Western Indian Ocean. We can lead the world with our proudly African initiative.”