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Feature Story

The Benguela current

May 1, 2016

The Benguela Current is one of 64 Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) around the world (the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea in the Coral Triangle is another). These are natural regions encompassing coastal waters from river basins and estuaries to the seaward boundary of continental shelves and the outer margins of coastal currents.

Hout Bay, South Africa, lies in the shadow of Table Mountain, one of the continent’s most distinctive geological features and a symbol of the city of Cape Town.

The town of Hout Bay is in part a well-to-do suburb of that bustling city of some 3 million people and a tourist destination in itself. The body of water that is the town’s namesake is also among the busiest in the Western Cape, with an active, established fishing industry.

A microcosm of South Africa, Hout Bay is a complex community, home to many ethnic groups and social classes. While the commercial fishery gets most of the attention from the local and national government, a good many people of Hout Bay and from communities all along the coast of Southern Africa also depend of the sea for their lives and livelihoods.

These subsistence fishers work from small boats in pursuit of lobster, snoek (a perch-like staple of the Cape), hottentot (a kind of sea bream endemic to southern Africa), as well as line fish. They must contend not only with commercial fleets and their huge trawl nets but also with changes in the Benguela Current, the rich ocean upwelling that flows northward for some 3,000 kilometers along the coast from the Cape of Good Hope nearly to the Congo. The Benguela is the life-blood of the southern Atlantic and a vital economic resource for South Africa, Namibia, and Angola. Fisheries being roughly six times more productive than that of the North Sea, the Benguela Current supports an important global reservoir of biodiversity and biomass of zooplankton, fish, sea birds, and marine mammals, while nearshore and offshore sediments hold rich deposits of precious minerals (particularly diamonds), as well as oil and gas reserves.

The Benguela Current is one of 64 Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) around the world (the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea in the Coral Triangle is another). These are natural regions encompassing coastal waters from river basins and estuaries to the seaward boundary of continental shelves and the outer margins of coastal currents. They are relatively large regions of 200,000 square kilometers or greater, defined by their undersea topography, or bathymetry, the depth and composition of the seabed, or hydrography, the productivity of their fisheries and the make-up of their natural food chain. Across the globe, 80 percent of the global marine fisheries catch comes from these ecosystems.

Since the mid-1990s, however, annual fish catches in LMEs have declined by more than 10 percent overall, representing millions of metric tons. Fishing down food webs, meaning targeting and depleting the populations of successively lower levels of marine predators, together with destructive fishing gear, pollution, and habitat loss from destructive trawling and coastal aquaculture, have all been shown to contribute to the decline of marine ecosystems across the globe. Existing populations in many cases are today only a fraction of historical levels. The depletion of ocean fisheries and the destruction of coastal habitats constitute globally significant environmental problems: As much as 90 percent of the large fish have been removed from the oceans, and three quarters of fish stocks are fished at their maximum yield level, overfished, or depleted.

All of these trends threaten the food security of hundreds of millions of poor people globally, people like South Africans Ivor Mars and Andre Prins.4 Ivor Mars has been fishing in and around Hout Bay since he was 12 years old and has seen the changes first hand. “The way we were catching fish at that time and the way they catch fish now is a big difference,” Mars says. “I don’t think there are a lot of fish left in the ocean now. In a couple of years from now there will be nothing in the water left, not even a seal will be left, because they are catching everything.”

Others in the region feel the same way. “It is very disturbing to think what our future is going to be like if the people carrying on the destructive fishing keep polluting our area,” says Andre Prins, who fishes out of Saldhana Bay, about 120 kilometers north of Hout Bay. The commercial fleets, he believes, “must change their way of fishing, change the trawl nests, change the equipment they are using to harvest the fish from the sea, because it is destructive, it is messing with our future, our community’s future, and just a matter of time before this bomb is going to burst out. Our children’s generation is not so stupid. They are not illiterate. They see things.”

The challenge, for the GEF and everyone concerned with addressing the problems these and other fishermen face, both economically and in terms of the underlying environmental trends, is that the depletion of fisheries resources in coastal oceans is but one symptom of mismanagement. Taking on these problems requires a comprehensive approach, addressing such issues as wasteful land practices, the pollution of freshwater systems, and inefficient energy use. Not only are coastal and marine ecosystems at risk, but so too are the human communities that depend on them for economic security and social stability.

Sector-by-sector approaches to economic development created this crisis, which is precisely why a similar focus on single marine sectors (e.g. fisheries, pollution, habitat, biodiversity) will fail to solve it. Marine ecosystems are by their very nature interconnected — no firm boundaries prevent fish and other sea creatures from migrating, often over great distances, and currents readily carry pollution far from its source. Recognizing the need for an ecosystem-based approach to coastal and marine systems, the GEF over the past 15 years has worked to create a movement in support of intergovernmental instruments to reverse the downward spiral of coastal and marine resources.

Only collective action can cope with these transboundary coastal and marine concerns, shifts in climate, the impacts of globalization, and the financial pressures they put on declining coastal ecosystems. The scale of economic loss facing coastal countries is at the level of trillions of dollars of ecosystem goods and services, and they are at risk through failures in governance.

In the mid 1990s, the governments of South Africa, Namibia and Angola saw the need for collective action to conserve the resources of the Benguela Current. Habitat loss, pollution, the unsustainable exploitation of marine and coastal natural resources, and increasing problems of human and ecosystem health caused by introduced species were among the issues these three nations sought to address. The government requested GEF assistance with the sustainable management and utilization of the Benguela Current. Of primary concern was the protection of the area’s marine life. The nations sought to accomplish this through the development of methods to better predict environmental and ecosystem changes, the protection of biological diversity, and strengthened capacity to adapt to fluctuating climatic conditions that threaten fisheries. Also on the to-do list was the reduction of coastal and off-shore mining impacts and better management of land-based pollution.

South Africa, Namibia, and Angola have a tangled history that makes cooperative management of their shared marine resources challenging indeed. Colonial powers with different languages, cultures, and laws fought for influence in the region and created boundaries without regard to indigenous inhabitants and natural habitats. The colonial governments paid little attention to managing marine resources, a sorry legacy inherited by the independent states. Even today, the various agencies responsible for pieces of the complex puzzle that make up the offshore environment rarely cooperate. Mining concessions, oil and gas exploration, fishing rights and coastal development have taken place with little or no proper integration or regard for other users.

During the 1960s and 1970s, a profusion of foreign fleets fishing off Angola, Namibia and South Africa severely depleted the fisheries. At the same time, all three countries were engaged in liberation struggles and associated civil wars. Consequences of these wars have been the population migration to the coast and localized pressure on marine and coastal resources (e.g. destruction of coastal forests and mangroves) and severe pollution of some embayments.

The first step in building trust among the three countries was a transboundary diagnostic analysis of the situation in the Benguela LME. This analysis identified and investigated the causes of negatives impacts on the region, and built a common framework for finding solutions. The national dialogues began the process of aligning different ministries related to land and water activities to work in an integrated, ecosystem-based fashion.

As a result, in 2002, Angola, Namibia, and South Africa agreed on specific reforms and investments in an action program that needed to be carried out to improve planning and management of resources in the region. Since then, they have surveyed shared fisheries, reduced the by-catch of seabirds, sharks, and turtles caught by longliners, and proposed new marine protected areas.

Most important of all, Angola, Namibia, and South Africa created the new, ecosystem-based, Benguela Current Commission, the first Large Marine Ecosystem commission in the world. The Commission, launched in 2007, demonstrates how the political commitment of three countries can combine to address ecosystem sustainability. In response, the GEF funded a second and final project to operationalize the Commission and support negotiations for a legal agreement, the Benguela Current Convention, among the three countries to sustain its work.

The Convention, signed in late 2011, will be ratified in 2012. As with the Danube Convention (see Chapter 7), this binding agreement will provide the foundation for long-term cooperative management of the Benguela Current LME. The Convention will enable the Benguela Current Commission to fulfill its role of marrying science with management to improve decision-making in fisheries, coastal management, mining, and energy.

Marine ecosystem projects supported by the GEF use science-based tools to provide forecasting and recommendations so that stakeholders at all levels can adapt to highly variable climate and long-term climate change. The Benguela environment is highly variable, prone to large-scale episodic warming events called Benguela Niños, intrusions of warm water from the east or cold water from the south, and changes in winds and salinity. All of these compound the effects of fishing and complicate the task of sustainable resource management. In addition, the Benguela Current is believed to play a significant role in global ocean and climate processes and may be an important site for the early detection of global climate change.

The GEF-supported, ecosystem-based approach in the Benguela region and elsewhere is building political and stakeholder commitment to action, setting the stage for the world community to invest in capacity building and technology. The participatory process relies on sound science to generate political solutions and commitments to reverse marine degradation and resource depletion. With more than 200 million people around the world directly dependant on fisheries for food security, cooperative efforts like those supporting sustainable use of the Benguela Current will be essential to securing the oceans and their resources and reducing poverty. Sustainable fisheries management, pollution control, the maintenance of essential habitats, and the creation of marine reserves will prove good investments in the productivity and value of the goods and services that the oceans provides to humanity.