Human-mediated drivers of change - impacts on coastal ecosystems and marine biota of South Africa

12 June 2014

Coastal ecosystems are highly vulnerable to human-mediated drivers of global change because they are located at the land–ocean interface and often host centres of urbanisation and development. The South African coastline comprises several distinct coastal ecoregions that support a wide range of coastal (inshore) ecosystems, including rocky, sandy and mixed shores, kelp beds, estuaries and seagrass communities. A growing body of evidence indicates that local air and sea temperatures, wind patterns, ocean current speed and upwelling regimes are all being affected by human-mediated climate change. In addition, anthropogenic activities, such as shipping (introducing coastal bioinvasives), exploitation of coastal marine resources, industry (releasing pollutants) and urban development, act synergistically with climate change to place pressure on coastal ecosystems and their biota. The aim of this review was primarily to synthesise and update research into causes of direct and indirect human-mediated global change and their effects on South African coastal systems. It incorporates both historic and the latest regional research on climate change and anthropogenic threats across the ecosystems listed above, much of which was supported by the South African Network for Coastal and Oceanic Research (SANCOR), specifically the SEAChange programme in recent years. It is evident that all these ecosystems are vulnerable to all the drivers considered, albeit to differing degrees, depending on their location on the coast. Whereas some bioinvasives have had a dramatic impact on rocky shore systems on the West Coast, their impact has been moderate on the South Coast and minimal on the East Coast; exploitation shows the reverse pattern. Furthermore, the impacts of human-mediated drivers on coastal ecosystems are synergistic. Of major interest is the fact that the West Coast and parts of the South Coast are exhibiting cooling trends in offshore sea surface temperatures, rather than warming. Correspondingly, a geographical spread of organisms associated with West and South-West Coast rocky shores and kelp beds has tended to be eastwards around Cape Point, rather than northwards along the West Coast as would have been expected with warming sea temperatures. Overall, significant progress has been made toward a better understanding of the combined pressures on each ecosystem and knowledge gaps have been identified, thus helping to direct future research themes.