South Africa’s MPAs Help Highly Prized Fishes Recover

Photo copyright Paul Dutton

Photo copyright Paul Dutton

Not too many coastal places on the planet can be called near pristine, but at the far eastern coastline of South Africa, one exists. It’s a place set aside as Pondoland Marine Protected Area, in a region most South Africans refer to as the Wild Coast. Named for the Pondo people who live here, this mesmerizing landscape and underwater realm sits at the transition between sub-tropical and warm temperate zones. Protection in a place with such high endemism (or unique species) and high species diversity makes a world of difference, particularly for four highly prized reef fish species.

Pondoland MPA has a core-protected area, where all fishing is banned, as well as a buffer where fishing with line and traditional spearfishing is permitted. This buffer zone protects access for the Pondo people, who still fish with the traditional tools used by their ancestors. Concerns over some of South Africa’s most important line-caught fish motivated scientists to investigate how the MPA was helping these prized species recover from overfishing. They examined four reef fishes (slinger, Scotsman, poenksop, and yellowbelly rockcod), all of which are particularly susceptible to overfishing. They grow slowly, mature late in life, and occupy a small patch of reef for their entire lives. They are also an important source of food for the Pondo people, and fishing for them is a long-standing cultural tradition.

By mimicking fishers in the area, scientists hooked and released fish for a period of 5 years to document the recovery of these reef fishes. The results were pleasing; as some of South Africa’s most important line-caught species were much more abundant and large in size inside the no take part of the MPA. On average, catches were lower in the exploited parts of the MPA. Scientists could actually detect recovery with time for two of the species, as catches increased over the course of the study for slinger and Scotsman. Not only did catch increase over time, but scientists saw increases in the size of fishes inside the protected area. This bodes well for the Pondo people, since larger fish produce far more offspring. With larger fish inside the MPA producing more offspring that can then drift away from the MPA, the fished areas outside may also see increases in fish abundance.

The success of the Pondoland MPA shows that even heavily fished species whose traits make them vulnerable to overfishing can recover within a large no-take zone. By protecting these reef habitats, this MPA will help rebuild stocks of these important species, ensuring the future of South African fisheries and preserving the interaction between the Pondo people and the sea.

To Learn More: Maggs J.Q., B.Q. Mann, P.D. Cowley. 2013. Contribution of a large no-take zone to the management of vulnerable reef fishes in the South-West Indian Ocean. Fisheries Research 144:38–47.