The gazetting of South African Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) extended the protection of important marine biodiversity areas to 5% of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 2019. This achievement, while commendable in increasing protection from a mere 0.4%, still falls short of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Aichi Targets, specifically Target 11, which aimed to protect 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. More recently, the 6th World Parks Congress advocated for more ambitious targets: 30% MPA protection by 2030.

The Seabird Conservation Programme has identified important marine areas for threatened seabird species using tracking data from local and international scientists, including data collected from our own scientists and data housed at the Seabird Tracking Database of BirdLife International. For our threatened coastal species, African Penguin, Cape Gannet and Cape Cormorant, we have applied the latest Marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (marine IBA) methods to identify important at-sea areas that are representative of the population sizes of the colonies from which they were tracked. Habitat use maps of both coastal and pelagic species have been submitted to the National Coastal and Marine Spatial Biodiversity Plan, specifically as biodiversity features that have been incorporated into the latest Critical Biodiversity Areas map. These will inform future iterations of MPA expansions and marine spatial planning processes more generally. While we have made substantial improvements to the coverage of threatened seabirds recently, there is still much room for improvement, especially establishing representative distributions of many pelagic species and the distributions of coastal seabird species during their non-breeding seasons.

Critical seabird habitat maps provide useful information to investigate the potential impacts of offshore maritime and industrial activities on seabirds of conservation concern. We are in the process of integrating these layers into risk assessment tools that can be used to inform responses to development applications and, at a more strategic level, for assessments of emerging developments and operations.

Another way in which we are involved in identifying critical seabird habitat is through the Atlas of Seabirds At Sea (AS@S). AS@S uses ‘citizen scientists’ to collect seabird distribution and abundance data from any vessel, by anybody willing and able to contribute. The data are collected in a standard way using the free-to-download BirdLasser mobile app and hosted in an open-access online database. AS@S was developed in collaboration with the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) with the support of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment – Branch Oceans and Coasts. At-sea observations are cheaper than tracking technology, and can take into account multiple individuals of multiple species all at once. For more information on AS@S, email the project coordinator on