By Hu Berry
Nowhere else on earth is there an expanse similar to that envisioned in Namibia’s latest, innovative conservation initiative.
Picture a merger of 12 000 km2 of protected Atlantic Ocean, dotted with islands, with a coastline that forms part of a 107 540 km2 continuous national park from the Orange to the Kunene rivers, and you have a combination of conserved sea and land that is unmatched in any country.
The launch of the Namibian Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Lüderitz on 2 July 2009 is of international significance to the cause of conservation. This action ensures that 10 islands and eight more islets receive formal protection under the guardianship of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources.
This is the largest formally protected area in Africa, and Namibia is the only continental country with its entire coastline protected as a national park. Sea and land combine here to provide a spectacle of nature on the grandest of scales.
The marine component stretches more than 400 kilometres from Meob Bay, north of Lüderitz, to Chaimas Bay, south of the harbour town, and 30 kilometres into the Atlantic Ocean. In future it may be possible to travel, under strict guidance, along the coast of 1 570 kilometres from the South African border to neighbouring Angola.
This irreplaceable asset was born from the primeval union of two of the planet’s greatest forces – water and wind. Flowing northwards along Africa’s west coast, the Benguela Current carried its liquid load of nutrients from Antarctic waters, and with it the chill that spawned the Namib Desert.
This primordial act of motherhood was fertilised by the paternal presence of a hovering high-pressure wind system that largely prevents significant rain. The bonding of these elements gave birth to the infant Namib, which developed slowly over millions of years to form a mature desert. It nevertheless requires the constant care of both cold water and potent wind to exist in its present form, which ranks it as the world’s richest hyper-arid region in terms of marine and terrestrial plant and animal life.
Focusing on the core marine conservation area now provided by the MPA, a series of small islands forms the key to the interface between sea and land.
A myriad of birds and mammals are dependent for their survival on these tiny protrusions in the South Atlantic. They dominate these rocky, spray-swept barren outcrops where wind energy dictates the days and fog shrouds the nights. Fourteen seabird species breed in Namibia, 11 of them on the islands.
Moreover, the endangered African penguin guards some of its last strongholds on their bleakness, while 90% of the equally endangered bank cormorants roost and nest there. Rare, tiny crowned cormorants and black oystercatchers are outnumbered by equally endangered Cape gannets.
Still ubiquitous, the Cape fur seal has established safe rookeries on many of the islands. In the sea surrounding them a host of cetaceans either breed or reside or transit through these waters. Among them are the southern right whale, mink whale, killer whale (orca) and dusky dolphin. A Namibian special, the Heaviside’s dolphin, one of the smallest and most strikingly patterned of its kind, is found only in the Benguela Current and nowhere else.
Curious names have been bestowed on these islands. For example, Mercury Island is said to be so named because of the shaking which reverberates through the island during westerly wave action. Plumpudding takes its name from imaginative, early seafarers who nostalgically likened its shape to a home-baked cake, while Christmas and Roastbeef leave little doubt as to their origin. The islands are diminutive in area, contradicting their value as safe havens for avian and mammalian sea life. At 90 hectares Possession is the largest; Mercury covers three hectares; Neglectus a mere 2 000 square metres, while the rocks of several islets jut barely visibly above the storm-tossed sea.
Formal protection of this complex ecosystem was not gazetted before a series of exhaustive studies and discussions were undertaken by marine scientists, biologists, environmentalists, geologists and legal experts who worked closely over a period of five years. They produced a comprehensive report published in 2009 by the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) as Namibian Islands Marine Protected Areas. Public participation was encouraged, together with regional and local authorities, the private sector and non-governmental organisations. A major input came from the MFMR, Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), Namibian Coast Conservation and Management (NACOMA) project, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The MPA embraces an all-inclusive buffer zone, which is sub-divided into four levels of increasing protection. Zone four affords the highest degree of security with specific conditions assigned to each island, islet or rocks. Included in this zone are rock-lobster sanctuaries and a line-fish sanctuary between Meob Bay and Sylvia Hill. The creation of more MPAs to the north is already being considered in the MFMR’s holistic approach to ecosystem management.
The significance of Namibia’s efforts to conserve one of her most valuable natural resources will weigh heavily in our favour with the international community. Consider that three quarters of the world’s marine fish reserves are threatened by over-fishing, with a further 30% of all fish caught dumped wastefully back into the sea. Food security ranks at the top of every country’s priorities and Namibia’s endeavours to ensure a sustainable yield of seafood for herself and other countries is already held in high esteem. A vision, which would fulfil the highest hope of many conservationists and that will hold huge benefits for Namibia, will be to seek World Heritage Site status for selected areas in the region that includes the MPA and the national park complex. Such a move will rank Namibia as a forerunner in global conservation. Already the high and low tides of the MPA link our sea heritage with the land, combining ocean and desert in an unbeatable blend, and placing the Namibian coast among the most breath-taking scenery in the world.
This article appeared in the 2009/10 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.