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‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is an adage that rings very true of South Africa’s pristine looking natural environment and coastline. A report that was released by the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa earlier this year, ‘Life: The State of South Africa’s Biodiversity 2012’ reveals the following disturbing facts:

  • Threatened with extinction in South Africa: 1 in 5 mammal species and 1 in 5 freshwater fish species; 1 in 7 frog and bird species and 1 in 8 plant species; 1 in 12 reptile and butterfly species
  • 20% of our coastline is under some sort of development
  • Coastal and marine ecosystems are under severe pressure from poaching, overfishing, bad fishing practices and pollution
  • Over half of our wetlands are critically endangered
  • 2 out of 3 rivers are in poor conditions and 40% of rivers in lowland areas are critically endangered – the Breede River and Berg River in the western Cape in serious trouble
  • of the 40 commercial marine species assessed, 25 are overexploited or threatened or have already collapsed

This is only a glimpse of the many problems facing South Africa’s natural environment, and though the report highlights various ecosystems, what is most concerning to me as a marine conservationist is what it says about our oceans, including fresh water systems, which ultimately land up in the oceans.

Most folk living along the 2,798 kilometers of South Africa’s coastline have little idea how bad things really are, let alone those folk living inland who would question why they need to give a hoot about something so far removed from them. What these people do not understand, even the most educated, is that no matter where on the planet you live, our oceans are our life support system, the blue heart of our planet. They provide most of the fresh water we drink, most of the oxygen we breathe, they provide protein to billions of people, medicine to millions more, to mention just a few reason why the health of our oceans matters to all of us.

So this week (7 – 11 October) is National Marine Week, which according to the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) is celebrated annually to raise awareness about the marine environment and inter-connectivity of our oceans with the rest of inland South Africa. The theme this year is “Better Understanding of Your Oceans” and Ms Edna Molewa led the opening function event in Port Elizabeth. This was followed by a campaign, which included visits to schools during the week. The theme is linked to a new project in development called the Ocean and Coastal Observing System that consists of various oceanographic instruments that promise to provide the public an opportunity to observe the ocean in real-time. The long-term objective is to create an early warning system and environmental monitoring network to ensure safe and healthy ecosystems. Sounds all good, but is it enough?

Let’s consider firstly the one-week effort to reach the public and some schools in order to raise awareness and educate. Here we can speak as experts given that AfriOceans, as an organization leading marine conservation and education in the country, which I founded in 2003, is currently running the largest marine focused environmental education programme in the country, funded by the National Lottery Board of South Africa. This project, the AfriOceans Warriors, is reaching thousands of children annually. We also annually run numerous compelling awareness campaigns in order to reach the general public. We therefore know that one week of effort by the DEA will barely make a dent. Only a sustainable campaign, week after week, year of year can deserve a pat on any political backs. But far too often if any budget is allocated towards education and awareness initiatives it is done as a token or merely to earn ‘green points’ for politicians or businesses. This green washing is in many cases unashamedly used to manipulate popular opinion to support otherwise questionable aims.

We also know that it’s all very well releasing more reports and new scientific research projects, which stand-alone are important, but time is running out. How many more reports and studies do we want to invest in before we accept what the experts already know, our oceans are dying? It is fact that they are facing multiple threats, the combination of which is causing the oceans to deteriorate faster than scientists previously believed. The lethal cocktail of threats is made up of climate change (including warming seas, acidification, low oxygen levels/dead zones, all on the rise), overfishing, coastal development and pollution.

In addition, when it comes to reports, the facts are not creatively shared with the public in an ongoing way that is meaningful to them, and which will ultimately result in much-needed change. Instead it appears in many cases that reporting is big business: massive annual budgets go to experts and politicians to create them, update them, then loads more funding is allocated to announcing them at fancy events that cost thousands more precious Rands. I never cease to be shocked at the extravagant budgets spent at these hobnobbing events alone, attended by a select few. I always consider how much Non Profit Organizations (NPO) could do with the funds spent at such events, often enough to run an entire environmental education programme for a year.

What we need now more than anything is less talk and more action, more marine protected areas, more limited fishing seasons along with reduced quotas, more full protection listing of many more species, more compliance, more severe punishment for perpetrators, and more taking the illness of our oceans seriously. And on top of the list, much more education and awareness because you cannot expect people to care if they do not know or understand.

Education and awareness is key to paving the way for environmental degradation to become reversible. It encourages and promotes a shift in individuals who make up a society to modify their values, and rethink their impact on the environment in all their choices by being informed, whether these choices are on an individual, business or political level. It should not, cannot, but it is so often neglected, nor seen as a priority despite its importance in creating environmental sustainability. If enough people are not reached and the information remains stuck in the boardroom amongst decision makers and other so-called experts, and in reports that often land up in file 13 after costing hundreds of thousands of Rands to compile, we can kiss our remaining beautiful coastline goodbye – it’s only a matter of time.

The world is already in serious environmental deficit.  The pursuit of short-term benefits has resulted in negative long-term consequences, the impact of which we are yet to fully realise, an impact which is set to cause great suffering for our children if we don’t do something to change it now. There is no more time to waste.

We are the organisation that whistle blowers within fishery departments turn to for help when secretive and illegal decisions by those in power threaten our marine resources (see Minister allows illegal fishing in MPA & Tsitsikamma Threat) because they know we are able to reach the masses through our awareness strategies and win support. We work on the ground with the communities, the children of Africa daily. We spend hours in the ocean, we fight for its protection and see the environmental problems facing South Africa first hand, how the people are suffering due to environmental degradation. We don’t get it from what we read in a report, attending a fancy opening event, or by sitting in a comfortable position in parliament or as a commissioned expert, we see it. We really care about the people and the environment. When it comes to the people we know what is needed to stop the environmental degradation spiral, and more time and funding towards education and awareness initiatives is high on the list.

Educating the public to ensure positive change is in fact the responsibility of our leaders of our country. They are tasked with ensuring that the constitutional right of every citizen is met, which when it comes to our natural environment is to inherit a healthy environment and oceans. They are failing to do so. Clearly they need our help.

When next our Minister of the Environment looks at priorities I challenge her to consider that since it is the people, and the children, of this country that are at highest risk as each year more and more of our natural environment is destroyed by pure neglect and irresponsible management thereof, that she re-think and re-look at how she spends her budget. Knowledge paves the way for change and lack of money in the right areas should not be stopping us from saving what we cannot afford to lose.

Watch my space!