Sunday, May 19, 2013

No man, or penguin, is an island

Copy of cw MARION - Kings in water 

INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS/OCEAN ROYALTY: Majestic King Penguins swim in the waters off Marion Island. There can be as many as 100 000 breeding pairs of this species at one colony Kildalkey Bay on the island. Pictures: John Yeld

Cape Town - So you think rock concerts are loud, busy places? Man, you should experience the penguin breeding colony at Kildalkey Bay on Marion Island, says island veteran Dr Deon Nel.
One of the great wildlife sights of the world, about 750 000 breeding birds can pack into the colony in this steeply sloping little valley. Most of them are the aptly named Macaroni Penguins with their dandy-ish head feathers, which could number as many as 200 000 breeding pairs – now sadly declining – but there are also a huge number of stately King Penguins, at around 100 000 breeding pairs.
And in certain years this colony on the south-eastern shores of the island can number more than 1 million birds, especially during moulting season, when it is inhabited not only by breeding birds but also by birds older than one year. “It’s this amazing, huge, sea of penguins, and the noise is absolutely incredible. It makes a Metallica concert look like a spring picnic, really,” says Nel.
And, he adds, when you stand and gaze at the colony, it brings home to you the intensely intimate relationship between the massive surrounding ocean and the tiny pinpricks of land that are the sub-Antarctic islands, like the Prince Edward group. “When one is on these islands, one is struck by the fact that they’re merely breeding places, and that the linkage between the ocean ecosystem and the terrestrial ecosystems is so immense.” 
Copy of cw Marion Africana arriving 

WILD ISOLATION: South Africa's fisheries research vessel RS Africana approaches Marion Island during typically stormy conditions of the 'Roaring Forties'. INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS
Nel, who heads conservation group WWF-SA’s biodiversity unit, was speaking at a recent function hosted by the group, at which it presented the government with its symbolic Gift of the Earth Award to mark the proclamation of the Prince Edward Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA) – South Africa’s 22nd MPA, but its only offshore one.
This new area is a massive conservation zone of about 180 000km2 around this two-island group, of which Marion Island is the bigger (the other, obviously, is Prince Edward Island) that lies deep in the Southern Ocean, about halfway to Antarctica, and which South Africa annexed in 1947.
Why is the new protected area so important? Nel explains that it’s because it protects a unique marine ecosystem, and a unique wildlife that is totally dependent on it.
The islands lie in the middle of the Southern Ocean’s notorious Roaring Forties, “a formidable, stormy and inhospitable ocean, but also a very beautiful one nonetheless”. It’s the ocean that is the “life-giver” to these small islands – “And we sometimes forget that.”
Nel points out that all the world’s oceans are a huge supplier of food. They also absorb the most carbon, in the form of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, of all the planet’s carbon sinks.
Copy of cw Marion albatross 

BREEDING TIME: A Wandering Albatross on its nest on Marion Island. This island and neighbouring Prince Edward Island support an estimated 44 percent about 7 300 birds of the global population of this species. INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS
“In many ways the oceans are the drivers of everything that happens on this planet of ours. I think in the past we’ve underestimated and undervalued the ocean and what it gives to us.”
Of course South Africa’s island territory is not the only area that is totally dependent on the Southern Ocean for its existence; other pinpricks of land in the south-eastern sub-Antarctic zone of this vast ocean include the Crozet Islands (French territory) just over 1 000km to the east, and the Kerguelen (also French) and Heard and McDonald (Australian) islands a further 1 500km-plus to the east.
And a particularly exciting follow-up to the conservation move at the Prince Edward Islands is the possibility of developing a new high seas Marine Protected Area in the Southern Ocean.
In accepting the WWF award, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa said she was “particularly pleased” to announce that South African scientists were already co-operating with their French counterparts to understand how marine ecosystems around the Prince Edward Islands are connected to the ecosystems of the Crozet Islands.
“This is with a view to testing the feasibility of linking our protection efforts within our respective national (200 nautical mile/370km) Economic Exclusive Zones by means of a high seas Marine Protected Area. I strongly support this ongoing collaboration with the French scientists and government in this regard,” she said.
The need for international partnerships was a point that WWF-SA chairman Valli Moosa – South Africa’s former environment minister who had set the political ball rolling for the declaration of the Prince Edward Islands Marine Protected Area – also emphasised in his speech at the award ceremony.
“In what could be seen as a microcosm of humankind’s relationship with our planet, the inhabitants of these (Southern Ocean islands) are almost wholly dependent on the islands and the surrounding marine environment for their existence,” he said.
“Like us, they do not have another habitable island within travelling distance and, like us, they are thus bound to live within the limits imposed upon them by their surrounding natural ecosystems.
“In protecting this biologically unique and internationally important area, we are effectively recognising our inter-relationship and dependence on our natural ecosystems, even those which occur far beyond the horizons of our everyday existence.”
But there was more work to be done, because while the Prince Edward Islands MPA represented “a major step forward” in terms of protecting the high seas ecosystems, it was only the first step towards developing a comprehensive network of offshore MPAs, both for South Africa and across the Southern Ocean.
“At present, less than 0.5 percent of global oceans are protected, and it’s hoped that South Africa’s proclamation of the Prince Edward Islands MPA will inspire the international community towards greater protection of our global oceans,” Moosa said. - Weekend Argus


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