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South Africa to Protect 70,000 Square Miles of Southern Ocean

Albatrosses, penguins, seals, and killer whales are among the charismatic species that will benefit from South Africa’s declaration of a vast new marine protected area in the Southern Ocean.

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Grey-headed albatross photo courtesy Sam Petersen/WWF South Africa

At 70,000 square miles (180,000 square kilometers), the Prince Edward Islands Marine Protected Area will be the fourth largest ocean preserve on the planet. Only the protected zones around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Great Barrier Reef, and Phoenix Islands are larger.

The Oklahoma-size territory that South Africa is adding to Earth’s protected marine areas is a haven for millions of birds, mammals, and other marine animals being squeezed out of safe places to feed and breed as overfishing and climate change impact their traditional range in the Southern Ocean.

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Antartic fur seal photo courtesy Fritz Pölking/WWF South Africa

The announcement by South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Minister, Christoffel Johannes van Schalkwyk, came after many years of close cooperation between the South African government and WWF, a multinational conservation organization with world headquarters in Switzerland.

“South Africa’s declaration to establish one of the world’s largest marine protected areas around its Prince Edward Islands is a marine conservation achievement of global importance that will help protect a suite of spectacular wildlife,” WWF said.

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Penguin colony photo courtesy Sam Petersen/WWF South Africa

The new conservation zone around the Prince Edward and Marion Islands is almost 800 miles (2,000 kilometers) south of South Africa in the Southern Ocean (see map below), and forms an important global biodiversity hotspot, which was subject to rampant poaching during the late 1990s, WWF said.

“This is a historic day in marine conservation in South Africa,” said Deon Nel, head of the WWF Sanlam Living Waters Partnership, a collaboration between WWF and Sanlam, a leading financial services group in South Africa. ”All of South Africa’s current marine protected areas are located very close inshore. The commitment of the first large offshore marine protected area moves South Africa into a new era of marine conservation.”

The Prince Edward Islands are among the world’s most important and diverse regions, WWF added. “But the islands, home to albatrosses, penguins and killer whales, have been threatened by illegal and irresponsible fishing practices in the past. The illegal fishing vessels around the Prince Edward Islands were targeting Patagonian toothfish. And the albatross species were killed as bycatch in these operations,” the conservation charity said in a news statement.

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Grey-headed albatross photo courtesy Sam Petersen/WWF South Africa

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 molt and are therefore critical to the conservation of such species, WWF added.

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“South Africa has made a globally significant commitment to our oceans through its intention to declare this large marine protected area,” said WWF International Director General Jim Leape. “The islands support some 13 percent of king penguins worldwide, and five species of albatross breed there together with 14 species of petrels.”

Prince Edward Islands support 450,000 king penguins and 750,000 macaroni penguins. An estimated 5 percent of the world’s southern rockhopper penguins also live there, as does a small population of about 3,000 gentoos.

Other birds colonizing the islands include 7,300 wandering albatrosses (44 percent of the total world population), 21,800 grey-headed albatrosses (the albatrosses in the two pictures above), 15,000 Indian yellow-nosed albatrosses (22 percent of the world population), 4,400 dark-mantled albatrosses, and a small population of 700 light-mantled sooty albatrosses.

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Photo of gentoo penguins courtesy Kevin Shafer/WWF South Africa

Among the marine mammals raising their young on the islands are 16,000 sub-Antarctic fur seals (a third of the world’s population), 760 Antarctic fur seals, and 1,800 southern elephant seals.

Said WWF International’s Jim Leape, “South Africa plays a key role with several other countries, including Australia, France and New Zealand, in protecting the amazing biodiversity and commercially important fisheries of the sub-Antarctic and, through this, helps to establish a fully representative, viable and effective marine protected area network for the Southern Ocean.”

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Wandering albatross photo courtesy Fritz Pölking/WWF South Africa

About 15 percent of South Africa’s 1,800-mile (3,000-kilometer) coastline is under marine protection. Marine protected areas create a framework for managing the country’s fisheries and consolidating some of the world’s top research, eco-tourism, sport diving and fishing sites, according to a South African Government Web site.

“Marine protected areas combine conservation with the development of tourism, and in this respect are the marine equivalent of national parks,” the site says.

Read more about South Africa’s marine protected areas >>

National Geographic News related stories:

Extinction Near for Albatross, Experts Warn

Antarctic Wildlife at Risk From Overfishing, Experts Say

King Penguins Declining Due to Global Warming

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Southern elephant seals photo courtesy Michel Gunther/WWF South Africa