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Benguela current convention: Conservation history in southern Africa

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The diversity and uniqueness of the Benguela marine ecosystem makes it one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems.  Stretching along the western coastlines of three countries, South Africa, Namibia and Angola, this 1,5million km2 Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) necessitates careful and sustainable transnational ecological management.  And this is exactly the aim of the Benguela Current Convention.  Last month, conservation history was made as these three southern Africa countries signed the world’s first LME legal framework. 

Economically speaking, the Benguela marine ecosystem is a hub of economic activities including offshore energy resource harvesting, diamond mining, commercial fishing and tourism.  The annual economic value of goods and services gained from the marine ecosystem is estimated at more than $54 billion.  Thousands of local people earn an income from the Benguela current.  This marine ecosystem is therefore an important economic resource for these three African countries. 

Beyond the immediate and direct economic value of the ecosystem, the ecological benefits of the Benguela marine ecosystem are quite impressive.  Scientists rate this LME as extremely productive, a Class I productive marine ecosystem.  The marine ecosystem’s populations of fish and sea life including marine birds and mammals are extraordinary.  The specific flow of warm and cooler waters creates a favorable environment for many fish types, hence the high level of productivity.  The northern sardine and anchovy fish call the Benguela current their home for their yearly spawning season.  And then the Benguela marine ecosystem has an even greater, global role:  scientists reported that this specific marine ecosystem is thought to play a major role in global climate and ocean processes. 

Although the South African, Namibian and Angolan governments acknowledged the conservation importance of this ocean current for many years, it is only now, with the signing of the Benguela Current Convention that international legal status is assigned to this LME.  The goal of this Benguela Current Convention is no small target: cross-national cooperation will be required for the management and conservation of this ecologically rich marine environment, allowing for continued economic harvesting from the system without hampering conservation efforts.  A fine balance, but two major organizations, namely the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is lending a hand.  The UNDP focus is the livelihood of thousands depending on the ecological functioning of the system; the GEF assists with research and ecosystem management. 

All parties involve know the risks and ecosystem vulnerabilities at stake.  Ill management and human impacts can easily lead to an unproductive environment, with plenty of cumulative impacts stretching beyond the immediate surrounding environment.  Sections of the Benguela LME are plagued by over exploitation and unsustainable resource consumption.  Invasive species such as the Mediterranean blue mussel is competing with the native species, contributing to species composition change.  The system’s water quality is fluctuating and water quality monitoring is highlighting the need for intensive rectification of deteriorating water quality.  The coastal nature of the ecosystem places it an even higher pollution risk area – pollution from commercial, industrial and residential and tourism sectors.  Globally, there is a steady influx of people towards coastal areas and the western coastlines of South Africa, Namibia and Angola are also experiencing this global trend.

Considering all this, we start to understand why the management of this African ocean current is so critical.  Environmental and resource protection, while allowing for economic and social development can only happen within a well-defined legal framework.  The governments of South Africa, Namibia and Angola have established such a framework.  Now, it is up to all parties, organizations, authorities as well as the public, to ensure long term protection and responsible use of this precious African marine gem.

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