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South Africa Launches First Six Hope Spots

Dr Sylvia Earle South Africa Hope SpotsIn 2009, world renowned oceanographer and conservationist Dr. Sylvia Earle was awarded the TED Prize, given annually to an individual with a vision to change the world for the better. With the funds she received with the prize, Dr. Earle founded the marine conservation organization Mission Blue, through which she subsequently launched her Hope Spot initiative. The purpose of this initiative is to create a global network of marine protected areas (or Hope Spots), each one chosen because it is considered critical for one reason or another to the future health of the oceans. There are currently 51 Hope Spots in existence, and this December will mark the launch of the first six in South Africa.

Scuba diving in South Africa is renowned for being amongst the best in the world. It is also amongst the most diverse, as is to be expected from a country that boasts no fewer than 136 distinct ocean habitats. Together, those habitats are home to over 11,000 marine species, of which a significant amount are found nowhere else on Earth. The key to South Africa’s biodiversity is its unique location at the confluence of three oceans, where warm and cold water currents meet and allow for the existence of temperate and tropical species alike. The imminent launch of South Africa’s first six Hope Spots pays tribute to the country’s astonishing marine resources- and underlines the importance of conserving them.

The locations chosen as South Africa’s flagship Hope Spots are False Bay, the Cape Whale Coast (near Hermanus), Knysna, Plettenburg Bay, Algoa Bay and Aliwal Shoal. Each have been selected for their environmental importance- for example, the Knysna estuary is home to the endemic Knysna seahorse, whilst the African penguin colonies that live in Algoa Bay account for 43% of the global population of these endangered birds. Each of the South African Hope Spots were also chosen because they are ideally positioned to facilitate the involvement of local communities- a concept that is central to the South African Hope Spot initiative and which makes these Hope Spots in particular so special.

Currently, 23% of South Africa’s 3,100km coastline is protected by government sanctioned Marine Protected Areas. However, because there is no real collaboration with or inclusion of local communities, the rules and regulations of these MPAs are tenuously enforced at best. South Africa is a country where countless impoverished people depend upon the ocean for their livelihoods, and where the majority of the population lacks the awareness or the opportunity to contribute to marine conservation efforts. If the new Hope Spots are to succeed, and to be sustainable in the longterm, they must address human issues as well as environmental ones.

The South African Hope Spots will be facilitated by Mission Blue’s South African partner, the Sustainable Seas Trust (SST). SST’s focus will be on making the Hope Spots fully inclusive, and on making marine conservation a concern not only for scientists and conservationists but for every South African- regardless of their race, income, profession or age. In order to achieve this goal, the Hope Spot committees in each location will be comprised of representatives from the worlds of science and academia, but also from business, politics, agriculture and the local community. The Hope Spots will focus particularly on education outreach programs, thereby teaching the children of today why we must conserve the marine ecosystems of tomorrow.

This month, the Hope Spots will be officially launched by Dr. Earle, who will embark on a ten day tour from Cape Town to Durban to promote the initiative and meet with community members in each location. When the tour is over, the real work will begin- in the form of action days and citizen science programs that will give members of the general public the chance to contribute to valuable conservation research projects. The December tour will coincide with the launch of a coffee table book created by SST and celebrating the relationship between humanity and the ocean. The funds raised from its sales will go directly into an education fund, which will be available for the Hope Spot committees to use to produce education materials and organize activity days for local schools.

The ways in which the Hope Spots will involve people from all echelons of society are almost endless- from enlisting the help of dive centers in each location to monitor underwater data buoys, to connecting isolated research groups working in the same area. As an international initiative with the backing of Dr. Earle and Mission Blue, the Hope Spots will attract attention and funding to little-known conservation projects within their remit. Eventually, SST aims to construct an education centre in each Hope Spot location, to allow as many schoolchildren as possible to be reached and inspired. Overall, the goal of the Hope Spots is to incentives South Africa as a nation to care about the future of its marine environments, by involving them in the fight to save them.

If the Hope Spots can succeed in this, Dr. Earle will have realized her vision to change the world for the better- and South Africa’s dive sites will remain some of the most impressive on the planet.