In South Africa, the scourge of poaching has now crept beyond the wildlife reserves to the depths of the ocean. There might be no large game there, but the oceans yield a different kind of resource: fish for a global population whose appetite for seafood is insatiable. Reeling from the compounded effects of climate change, depleted fish stocks, and inequitable fishing contract allocation, local populations along South Africa’s coasts are now forced to poach the seas to make their living.

Following years of illegal fishing now aggravated by poaching, the situation has reached crisis levels. According to the  World Wildlife Fund, high-value species like abalone and West Coast rock lobster are reaching the point of commercial extinction, while more than 50% of commercial species, like Dageraad, geelbek, and white stumpnose, are in decline. Even worse, over-exploitation of the nation’s fish stocks is devastating the livelihoods of artisanal fishing communities who live along the nearly 3,000km coastline.

South Africa isn’t the only country affected by this phenomenon. Overfishing is depleting the once-fertile marine stocks off the majority of the African coast, leading to empty waters and ultimately, empty dinner tables as both the jobs of local communities and the very food they eat are under threat. The situation has become so grave that 37 species of fish are classed as ‘threatened with extinction’ and 14 more are ‘near threatened’ from Angola in the south to Mauritania in the North.

In South Africa, quotas were intended to put a stop to heavy fishing, but they have only stoked vehement protests by locals. They argue that the way the government allocates quotas is unfair, crafted to benefit big business and failing to address the ways that certain fishing practices, such as the trap system, severely damage marine environments.

Unfortunately, this is man-made calamity heaped upon man-made calamity. One of the main underlying sources of harm to marine life is the constant temperature rise of the world’s oceans that increases year on year, with devastating effect. The issue has become so grave that some scientists suggest a new age – ‘the heat age’ – will be ushered in, upending the delicate aquatic ecosystem, with potentially disastrous consequences for life in our oceans and on land.

The impact of this nascent ‘heat age’ can be felt already. South Africa’s coral reefs at Sodwana Bay have been struck by bleaching, in which coral reefs – sometimes called the rainforest of the oceans because of the diverse marine life they house – expel the vital algae living in their tissues and eventually die.

Unfortunately, what happened at Sodwana Bay is playing out at coral reefs around the world, impacting the lives of people living on the coast and many miles beyond it. Globally, some 275 million people live within 30km of a reef, forming the end of an extensive food chain that begins in the crevices of the coral reefs. Despite the fact that they occupy a modest 0.2% of marine surface area, they provide food and shelter to around a third of marine species.

Coral reefs do not only protect life underwater, but also on land, acting as a ‘wall’ that can help mitigate the effects of surges and tsunamis. In the US, for example, scientists believe that the destruction of Florida’s main coral reef left the state much more vulnerable to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma last month.

Yet despite the very real impact that coral bleaching can have for those on land, governments worldwide have been responding lethargically to the issue. For instance, the United Nations has said it had ‘serious concerns’ about Australia’s ‘slow’ progress towards achieving water quality targets for the Great Barrier Reef, arguably the most famous coral reef in the world. And of course, the US looks set to abandon the Paris climate agreement that is so crucial to tackling global warming and thus arresting coral reefs’ rates of decline.

Yet while governments shy away from addressing issues of ocean health and climate change, public-private partnerships have stepped up to the plate. Denmark, for example, has helped launch a global climate initiative, Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 (P4G), which aims to facilitate the knowledge sharing between businesses and community leaders.

Philanthropists are also filling in the gaps. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has made a $4 million grant to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to support its scientists in their understanding of the ocean’s response to climate change, a crucial stopgap measure at a time when the Trump administration has threatened to cut off funds for the agency.  Meanwhile, the Philip Stephenson Foundation is funding conservation projects conducted by the National Geographic Pristine Seas and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to protect and restore large areas of the sea in the US and worldwide, as well as coral reef protection projects in the Caribbean.

A few governments have begun to broker promising partnerships with non-profits and research institutes in an effort to save their coastal resources. The West African country of Gabon announced last summer that it would create the continent’s largest network of marine protected areas, in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society and other organisations.

These measures are a start, but they are not enough. The lack of concerted government action in South Africa and other developing countries with some of the most abundant marine resources – where up to half of their populations depend on marine biodiversity for the livelihoods – means that a crisis is at hand. But with public-private partnerships leading the charge on saving our oceans, there is still hope for threatened species, sick coral reefs, and concerned fishermen if governments put their considerable resources behind their efforts.

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Margaret Koffman

Margaret is a London based freelance researcher and development consultant with a specific focus on the African region.

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