The Prince Edward Islands, two small islands in the sub-antarctic Indian Ocean, have been declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA), making it South Africa’s first offshore MPA and one of the world’s largest. Comprising Marion Island and Prince Edward Island, its MPA status is intended to significantly contribute to global initiatives aimed at protecting offshore and deep ocean areas, to conserve unique biodiversity and to contribute towards integrated and ecologically sustainable management its marine resources.
The marine biodiversity of the Prince Edward Islands is of global importance. Given the scarcity of land masses in the Southern Ocean, sub-Antarctic islands contain vast populations of seals and seabirds, which use these islands to breed and moult. This means that these islands are critical to the conservation of such species as they are forced to aggregate in high densities where they are vulnerable to disturbance and the threat of introduced predators or pathogens. The islands are also well suited to studying the rate and impacts of climate change as a result of global warming and close to 1000 scientific papers have been produced from research on Marion Island.
“The Prince Edward Islands MPA is a significant contribution to the conservation of global biodiversity. The new MPA will also contribute significantly towards South Africa’s national and international commitments to biodiversity protection,” said South Africa’s Minister for Environment, Ms B.E.E. Molewa.
Minister Molewa also added that, “the new MPA is intended, among other things, to contribute to the protection of unique species, habitats and ecosystem processes. It will also provide scientific reference points that can inform the future management of the area and to be able to understand better the impacts of climate change on the whole Southern Ocean. It will also contribute to integrated and ecologically sustainable management of marine resources of the area.”
The Prince Edward Islands provide a critical habitat that supports a large number of endangered birds. The islands support 33% (16 000 animals) of the world population of sub-Antarctic Fur Seals, some 13% (450 000 birds) of King Penguins worldwide, and about 5% of the world population of Southern Rockhopper Penguins. Five Species of Albatross breed on the Prince Edward Islands, together with 14 species of petrels and five other species. The islands support 44% (7300 birds) of all Wandering Albatross, 10% (21 800 birds) of Grey Headed Albatross, 21% (15 000 birds) of Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross and approximately 10% (4400 birds) of Dark-mantled and 2% (700 birds) of Light-mantled Sooty Albatross.
The declaration of this MPA is in line with South Africa’s new “National Protected Areas Expansion Strategy” which seeks to structure the way in which protected areas are declared in order to maximise conservation benefits. This strategy drew attention to South Africa’s lack of offshore protected areas, and put forward the Prince Edward Islands.