I was going to be a famous singer, like ‘Christina Aguilera with a show-in-Vegas’ famous, but alas, the universe had other plans.

As it turns out, my passion is for conservation and figuring out how to change the world (way more than singing). I started working at WILDTRUST – a leading environmental NPO in South Africa, – more than eight years ago, in Marketing and Communications. The conservation sector was doing some amazing stuff – but nobody was talking about it.

In that time I also noticed that there were some not so nice “supposed” conservation activities happening that needed to be exposed. Blood Lions was the first advocacy campaign I worked on – it exposed the canned hunting and captive predator breeding industry worldwide. The campaign inspired significant shifts in governance and resulted in the bad guys being taken to task. This is when the advocacy bug bit me.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, WILDTRUST
Ragged tooth Shark

WILDOCEANS, the marine conservation, research and capacity building arm of WILDTRUST, launched an advocacy and awareness campaign to outline the benefits of marine protected areas (MPAs) and highlight ocean threats – with the goal of advancing protection in the oceans around South Africa.

Amid stiff opposition from the oil and gas industries, a broad-based coalition of organisations including WILDOCEANS, Ocean Unite, WWF-SA, Centre for Environmental Rights and the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) launched the campaign called ‘Only This Much SA’, seeking to mobilise a regional movement for increased protection across all African national waters and Africa’s Southern Ocean territories.

On its launch in March 2018 Only This Much SA spread awareness about the (then) 0.4 per cent protection, and pushed hard for an increase to 5 per cent, creating conversations in media (social, online, print and broadcast) to make MPAs more mainstream. The approval by South Africa’s Cabinet in October of 20 new and expanded MPAs, bringing the total protection of the oceans around South Africa up to 5 per cent, was a massive win for marine conservation in African waters (and yes, champagne was drunk).

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, WILDTRUST
Specially Protected Seventy four in uThukela MPA

The 2018 UN Biodiversity Conference was held in November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt – bringing together the global community to assess progress towards achieving sustainable development targets and deliberate on measures needed to curb further degradation of natural systems and the consequent impacts on us.

A key measure is the Aichi Biodiversity Targets adopted as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at the Conference of the Parties (CoP10) held in Aichi-Nagoya in Japan. This committed the parties (South Africa being one of them) to achieving at least 10 per cent protection of the coastal and marine environment within MPAs by 2020. Now, just two years from the Aichi Biodiversity Target deadline, how is South Africa doing?

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, WILDTRUST
A new species of seabat fish filmed by ROV

At a side event at the Conference in Egypt, the South African government released the map of 20 new MPAs. These were negotiated as part of the Operation Phakisa Ocean Economy Programme of South Africa and are ecologically representative, well connected and integrated. It is super special to me that WILDOCEANS contributed to this positive outcome through our partnership with the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP), which enabled us to support and conduct research in four of the new MPAs on the East Coast.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, WILDTRUST
Back Coelacanth The Dinosaur Fish

Aboard our vessel this year, RV Angra Pequena, we encountered the prehistoric coelacanth fish (Latimeria chalumnae) in the deep canyons of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which is to be expanded as part of this new network. This fish was thought to be extinct, but we have since discovered 32 known individuals in South Africa, all occurring within this MPA.

The multi-institutional collaborative science team also discovered habitats never surveyed before, including deep reefs dominated by fragile soft corals, sponges and bryozoans species new to science (such as the seabat fish Halieutaea sp) and other species not known to occur in these areas.

It became apparent that populations of endangered species, such as scalloped hammerhead sharks, and threatened ragged tooth sharks were using these MPAs as important refuges for breeding and feeding. The team were excited to see adult populations of the Seventy-four fish, which was severely over exploited and almost disappeared due to overfishing.

We would like to say thank you to the Department of Environmental Affairs, the South African National Biodiversity Institute and President Cyril Ramaphosa for putting marine protection first, not only is this MPA expansion wonderful news for today’s South Africans but for generations to come – as this is the ocean they will inherit.