Marine Life in Rapid Decline

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By Surihe Gaomas SWAKOPMUND Marine life along the coastlines of Namibia, South Africa and Angola have been declining drastically over the past few years. Contributing factors to this high mortality rate are largely pollution from port industries, spillages from shipping vessels, humans killing marine animals and the current low levels of pelagic fish stocks on which these animals feed, which stocks are diminishing by the day. Those mainly at risk are the Cape fur seals, African penguin, seagulls and other marine birds, and water turtles. Although the year 2006 is dedicated to the marine turtle, ironically these valuable coastal creatures are virtually being slaughtered in their thousands for their eggs, meat, skin and shells. Some of these animals are even found dead with their heads chopped off by locals staying at the coast. This is particularly the case along the Angolan coastline bordering northern Namibia, where most of these marine turtles’ breeding colonies are located. Marine scientist Michel Morais of the University of Angola said last week during the Angola-Benguela Front Workshop held in Swakop-mund that recent surveys show that between the periods 2003 to 2006 there’s been a drastic decrease of about 50 percent of the turtle population along Angola’s coastline. “People just destroy the nests and fishermen sometimes put their nets too close to the coastline and some get caught in them,” said Morais, adding that green turtles have also been found dead without their heads. It turns out that there are some traditional beliefs that by cutting off marine turtles’ heads one is automatically cured from an illness. Furthermore, along the Namibian coastline bordering with Angola, close to half of the leatherback turtles are starving as there is not enough pelagic fish on which they can feed especially during the breeding season which falls between September and March. With the Benguela Nino weather phenomenon of warm water upwelling in the sea, fish stocks have diminished, leaving other sea animals little to feed on. Other threats cited by marine scientists are coupled with contributory factors like climate change, the use of non-selective fishing gear and lack of effective monitoring systems that would aid such animals from surviving in the long term. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), today it turns out that six of the seven species of marine turtles – hawksbill, olive ridley, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback, logger head and green turtles – are classified as “endangered” or “critically endangered”. However, Director of WWF’s Global Species Programme Dr Sue Lieber-man said that human activities in addition to the global environmental change over the past 200 years have massively tipped the scales against the survival of these ocean species. “Marine turtles suffer from poaching and over-exploitation, as well as from capture in fishing gear and habitat loss,” said Lieberman in a recent press statement on the global organisation’s website. Sea birds like the Cape gannet along Namibia’s coastline have also been experiencing hard times, suffering a decrease of almost 90 percent over the last 10 years. Furthermore, the African penguin’s numbers have also plummeted drastically over the last 50 years, worse- ning very much from the 1960’s. Strong winds coupled with a high variable river flow that lacks the necessary fish stocks have negatively affected the rich coastal wetland at the Kunene River mouth that serves as a Transboundary Ocean Species Area for both Namibia and Angola. In addition, the Cape fur seals have also taken a beating due to the Benguela Nino event way back in 1994/1995 that left very little pelagic fish stocks available for feeding and breeding. Ever since this ocean phenomenon took place, the seal population has never really recovered to the high numbers of before. Seals normally inhabit 29 locations along the coast and consume 2-million tonnes of fish stock annually. These coastal mammals are seen as the top preda- tors in the Benguela ecosystem. However, despite this current trend of events threatening the marine life along the Benguela coastline, experts in the industry believe that with joint and concerted efforts in conservation, effective data collection and comprehensive research would go a long way in addressing these concerns. It is with this vision amongst many others that marine scientists and oceanographers ended both the Benguela-Angola Front Workshop and the annual Benguela Environment Fisheries Interaction and Training Programme (BENEFIT) Forum that ended last Friday at Swakopmund.