NOTICE | Sophie von der Heyden: More than ever, we must cherish our oceans

Studies have shown that climate change and plastic pollution are two of the most significant threats to natural systems, the author writes.

Simple day-to-day measures such as reducing the use of plastic, ensuring that waste goes into garbage cans rather than a storm sewer, and choosing responsibly sourced marine protein can go a long way in reducing the impact on the environment. ‘ocean, written Sophie von der Heyden.


There was collective inspiration, followed by disbelief, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the closure of beaches as a preventive measure against Covid-19 in December 2020. It deeply affected many South Africans for whom Christmas and the New Years are also beach time, a chance to take to the sand, enjoy the fresh air and experience the freshness of the ocean.

Oceans enrich the lives of many people beyond beach visits, but there is still a lot we don’t understand about the world’s oceans, especially the deepest and most remote parts.

In coastal South Africa we have one of the most diverse ranges of coastal currents and temperature patterns, stretching from the cold oceans of the west coast to the warmer waters of the east coast and straddling two ocean basins, the ‘Atlantic and Indian. Such a meeting of two great ocean systems is found nowhere else on earth and sets the stage for an incredible diversity of plants and animals, many of which are found only on our coasts.

Connectivity of people and oceans

To date, over 12,000 species have been described in the region, many of which are only found in South Africa.

Along the approximately 2,800 km of coastline, there are many different types of habitat, including sandy and rocky shores and submarine kelp forests and rocky reefs, seagrass meadows and mangrove forests. Each of these systems plays an important role in providing a service, not only to biodiversity, but also to humanity, and includes regulating the climate, absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the lock-up of it in the marine sediments, as well as providing food to many people in the area.

READ | Analysis: Humans must change their relationship with the environment to prevent future pandemics

In South Africa, there are many different levels of ocean food harvesting, from subsistence and small-scale fishermen to large-scale commercial operations. It is estimated that there are between 25,000 and 30,000 artisanal fishermen alone and nearly 500,000 recreational fishermen. While these numbers may seem like a small proportion of the general population, many of these fishermen support extended families, often in communities where there are few employment opportunities or other viable sources of income.

It is in this context that the theme of World Oceans Day 2021, “The Ocean: Life and Livelihood” is so important. It celebrates the connectivity of people and the oceans.

According to the United Nations, World Oceans Day aims “to inform the public of the impact of human actions on the ocean, to develop a global movement of citizens for the ocean, to mobilize and unite the world population around a project for the sustainable management of the world’s oceans “. This is vital to raise awareness of how much marine systems are part of our daily life and of the value of the oceans for enriching well-being human Without our oceans there would be no life.

Reduce the use of plastic

This, of course, places some responsibility for protecting the oceans on everyone, whether you are reading this in the Free State or sitting on a beach. It can sometimes be difficult to understand how, as individuals, we can help preserve the oceans.

Yet even simple everyday measures such as reducing the use of plastic, ensuring that waste goes into trash cans rather than a storm sewer, and choosing responsibly sourced marine protein can go a long way in reducing the impact. on the ocean.

Studies have shown that climate change and plastic pollution are two of the most significant threats facing natural systems, both having huge negative impacts on ecosystems globally. For example, reports suggest that a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic is the increase in the amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) littering beaches and shallow marine environments, single-use face masks being identified as the most common form of PPE in some areas.

This has the potential to seriously threaten marine life, including iconic species such as turtles and seabirds. We must take collective responsibility to help protect the future of our oceans and of humanity.

Looking ahead and celebrating World Oceans Day, now is the time to reconnect with the wonders we have on our doorstep and celebrate the richness, beauty and even the services provided by the unique marine environment. to South Africa.

– Sophie von der Heyden is Associate Professor of Marine Genomics and Conservation in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University.

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