Marine biodiversity in South Africa: An evaluation of current states of knowledge

23 May 2011

Continental South Africa has a coastline of some 3,650 km and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of just over 1 million km2. Waters in the EEZ extend to a depth of 5,700 m, with more than 65% deeper than 2,000 m. Despite its status as a developing nation, South Africa has a relatively strong history of marine taxonomic research and maintains comprehensive and wellcurated museum collections totaling over 291,000 records. Over 3 million locality records from more than 23,000 species have been lodged in the regional AfrOBIS (African Ocean Biogeographic Information System) data center (which stores data from a wider African region). A large number of regional guides to the marine fauna and flora are also available and are listed. The currently recorded marine biota of South Africa numbers at least 12,914 species, although many taxa, particularly those of small body size, remain poorly documented. The coastal zone is relatively well sampled with some 2,500 samples of benthic invertebrate communities have been taken by grab, dredge, or trawl. Almost none of these samples, however, were collected after 1980, and over 99% of existing samples are from depths shallower than 1,000 m—indeed 83% are from less than 100 m. The abyssal zone thus remains almost completely unexplored. South Africa has a fairly large industrial fishing industry, of which the largest fisheries are the pelagic (pilchard and anchovy) and demersal (hake) sectors, both focused on the west and south coasts. The east coast has fewer, smaller commercial fisheries, but a high coastal population density, resulting in intense exploitation of inshore resources by recreational and subsistence fishers, and this has resulted in the overexploitation of many coastal fish and invertebrate stocks. South Africa has a small aquaculture industry rearing mussels, oysters, prawns, and abalone—the latter two in land-based facilities. Compared with many other developing countries, South Africa has a well-conserved coastline, 23% of which is under formal protection, however deeper waters are almost entirely excluded from conservation areas. Marine pollution is confined mainly to the densely populated KwaZulu-Natal coast and the urban centers of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Over 120 introduced or cryptogenic marine species have been recorded, but most of these are confined to the few harbors and sheltered sites along the coast.