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South Africa’s entire coastal marine area has been identified as globally important for marine mammals. Five candidate important marine mammal areas were demarcated for South African coastal waters at a workshop in Oman in the Middle East, each one of them applying to Algoa Bay and together encompassing all SA’s near-shore waters.

Dr Stephanie Plön, of the Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute at Nelson Mandela University, who attended the event, said on Thursday the news should be a source of pride for all South Africans.

“It’s very exciting. Marine mammals are a huge resource and a natural heritage directly affected by serious problems like micro-plastics.

“The health of marine mammals has a direct correlation to the health of our oceans in terms of everything from pollution to climate change.”

Plön said her particular focus on disease in whales was still skimming the surface of what could be a fundamental marine dynamic.

“The population of some whales has indeed increased but I think we are missing something regarding the huge load of chemical pollutants we are dumping into the sea.

“The only way we can find out if this is significant is with continued research.

“This news from Oman is a significant boost for marine research and conservation.”

The five candidate important areas were accepted after presentations by Plön and two other SA scientists – fellow NMU marine biologist Dr Vic Cockcroft, now in Plettenberg Bay and ex-curator of marine mammals at the Port Elizabeth Museum, before it became Bayworld – and Dr Ken Findlay from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Plön said the first important marine area was along the Southern Cape coast where southern right whales mated and calved between June and November every year.

The second included waters on the east coast within 15km of shore known for migrating humpback whales between June and November each year.

“The third is the inshore and Agulhas Shelf waters of the southern coast where the inshore form of the Bryde’s whale – declared as vulnerable in the most recent SA Red Data List assessment – is found.”

The fourth was the inshore zone of the south coast where SA’s endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin was found.

“The fifth is the south-east coast seasonal sardine run area, where marine apex predators such as common dolphins, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, Bryde’s whales, Cape fur seals and killer whales can be seen following the annual migration of sardines in May/June.”

The Oman event followed other workshops around the world but the 55 candidate important marine mammal areas identified for the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas region was a record total.

This reflected the rich marine mammal diversity in the region and also the relative lack of research in these waters, Plön said.

The candidate areas would be reviewed, finalised hopefully by October and then mapped on a global atlas illustrating the habitats of 130 marine mammal species including whales and dolphins, seals, sea cows, otters and the polar bear.

It would be used for spatial planning and to promote sustainable marine development.

The 5th important marine mammal area workshop was hosted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s marine mammal protected areas task force and sponsored by the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative and the German government.

Task force spokesperson Erich Hoyt said the Western Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea region was special.

“Besides the endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin, there are three endangered blue whale sub-populations and the rarest humpback whale – the Arabian Sea humpback whale.

“There are large numbers of Omura’s whale, only recently identified as a species, and the region is also home to the dugong which persists in pockets along the coast from East Africa to west Asia.”

‘This news from Oman is a significant boost for marine research and conservation’

Stephanie Plön
Whale Specialist

This article appeared in The Herald of 22 March 2019 written by Guy Rogers

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