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Namibian Islands

The Namibian Islands comprise four offshore islands: Mercury Island, Halifax Island, Ichaboe Island, and Possession Island, located in the central region of the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem (BCLME), within the intensive Lüderitz upwelling cell in Namibia. The accepted EBSA boundary comprises a 5-km buffer area around each of the four islands, but the proposed new boundary is to match the full extent of the broader Namibian Islands Marine Protected Area. These islands and the associated marine area serve as spawning and nursery grounds for fish and other resource species such as the west coast rock lobster, and as significant breeding and foraging sites for seabirds and marine mammals, some of which species are threatened.

EBSA Description: Namibian Islands

General Information


The Namibian Islands are located offshore in the central region of the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem (BCLME) within the intensive Lüderitz Upwelling Cell (LUC). These islands and their surrounding waters are described primarily in terms of their significance for life history stages of threatened seabird species. The islands are crucial seabird breeding sites within the existing Namibian Islands’ Marine Protected Area (NIMPA); they are also a foraging site for Critically Endangered leatherbacks from the Western Indian Ocean that nest in South Africa. The boundaries of the NIMPA are largely based on the foraging ecology of key threatened, breeding seabirds and are used here too to delineate the ecological and biological significance of the proposed islands and adjacent marine environment.

MARISMA updates

The site description has been updated; the EBSA boundaries have been refined.

Introduction of the area

The Namibian Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) gazetted the Namibian Islands Marine Protected Area (NIMPA) in 2009. The NIMPA covers nearly 1 million ha of coastal waters that encompasses all natural seabird breeding islands in Namibia and some key seabird foraging areas. It is located in the central region of the BCLME within the LUC, which plays a significant role in regulating the biomass of fish stocks of central Namibia. The NIMPA provides important breeding and foraging habitat for seabirds and marine mammals, and includes important nursery grounds for west coast rock lobster, Jasus lalandii (Currie et al., 2008). It is also recognized as a foraging site for Critically Endangered leatherbacks from the Western Indian Ocean that nest in South Africa (Harris et al., 2017).

Description of location

The original boundary of the Namibian Islands EBSA has been extended to match that of the NIMPA. It extends alongshore about 400 km from Meob Bay to Chameis Bay and, on average, 30 km offshore from the high-water mark. It is located between the latitudes of 24°S and 28°S, within the national jurisdiction of Namibia.


Area details

Feature description of the area

The islands comprise the key element of the NIMPA. Eleven seabird species breed on the islands, of which eight are endemic to southern Africa (Kemper et al., 2007). Of these, the African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus), Bank Cormorant (Phalacrocorax neglectus) and the Cape Cormorant (P. capensis) are listed as globally Endangered; the Cape Gannet (Morus capensis) is listed as globally Vulnerable and locally Critically Endangered (Simmons et al., 2015, IUCN 2016). The Namibian populations of African Penguins, Cape Gannets and Bank Cormorants breed exclusively within the NIMPA. The design of the NIMPA took seabird tracking data into account to ensure the inclusion of critical foraging areas of resident breeding birds (Ludynia et al., 2010a, 2012). Three rock lobster sanctuaries, one line fish sanctuary and key calving areas of southern right whales were also included (Currie et al., 2008). The NIMPA, which adjoins the Namib-Naukluft and Tsau//Khaeb national parks on the land side, is sectioned into zones of increasing protection levels, with the highest protection status afforded to the islands. Six of the islands are designated Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs; Simmons et al., 2015). Altogether, 140 species have been recorded in the EBSA (OBIS 2017).

Feature conditions and future outlook of the proposed area

A lack of quality food poses the greatest threat to seabird populations breeding on Namibia’s islands (Ludynia et al., 2010b, Simmons et al., 2015). The collapse of sardine stocks in the 1960s and anchovy populations in the 1990s (Roux et al., 2013), both significant prey species, threaten the viability of African Penguin, Cape Gannet and Cape Cormorant populations in particular. The recovery of small pelagic fish stocks in southern Namibia is therefore crucial to the continued survival of these species. The coast is vulnerable to marine pollution, especially oil spills, and even a small oil spill at a key breeding site such as Mercury Island could put a significant proportion of the global population of African Penguin, Cape Gannets and/or Bank Cormorants at risk. Namibia’s National Oil Spill Contingency Plan is currently being updated, and a process to draft the Oil Spill Sensitivity Mapping is underway for improved monitoring and prevention. Breeding habitat degradation and associated disturbance (e.g. from guano harvesting) has further rendered breeding seabirds, particularly African Penguins and Cape Gannets at risk. An increasing emphasis on marine mining, including inshore and coastal mining south of Lüderitz may pose additional threats to seabirds, rock lobsters and marine mammals, such as prey displacement and modification of key marine habitats.

Holness et al. (2014) estimated habitat threat status by assessing the weighted cumulative impacts of various pressures (e.g., extractive resource use, pollution, development and others) on each habitat type for Namibia (Table 1). The results identified small areas of two Critically Endangered habitat types (viz. the Namaqua Intermediate Sandy Beach and Namaqua Reflective Sandy Beach) within the Namibian Islands EBSA. The Critically Endangered status implies that very little (<= 20 %) of the total area of these habitats are in natural/pristine condition, and it is expected that important components of biodiversity pattern have been lost and that ecological processes have been heavily modified. Furthermore, one Endangered habitat type (viz. the Kuiseb Mixed Shore) and three Vulnerable habitat types (viz. the Lüderitz Outer Shelf, Namaqua Exposed Rocky Shore, and Namaqua Inshore) were identified. In particular, the Namibian Islands EBSA is very important for the Lüderitz Outer Shelf, Namaqua Inshore and Kuiseb Mixed Shore habitat types. Overall, Holness et al. (2014) classified 91 % of the Namibian Islands area as being in good condition, which is consistent with the inclusion of the entire area in the NIMPA.


Assessment of the area against CBD EBSA criteria

 Uniqueness or rarity


Rank: High

The entire Namibian population of African Penguins (25 % of the global population), Cape Gannets (11 %) and Bank Cormorants (89 %) breed in the NIMPA (Kemper et al., 2007, Ludynia et al., 2012). Cape Gannets breed on only six islands globally; three of these are in Namibia, all of which form part of the NIMPA. Of the eleven seabird species that breed on the islands, eight are endemic to southern Africa (Kemper et al., 2007)

 Special importance for life-history stages of species


Rank: High

The islands (and two coastal caves) support the entire Namibian breeding populations of three threatened seabird species. Due to their inaccessibility by terrestrial predators, these sites offer safe breeding and moulting habitat (Kemper 2006, Kemper et al., 2007). Breeding penguins and cormorants forage almost exclusively within the boundaries of the NIMPA; breeding gannets have larger foraging ranges, but core feeding activities take place within the NIMPA (Ludynia et al., 2010a, 2012). In Namibia, the majority of calving sites for Southern Right Whales (a species that was nearly hunted to extinction in Namibia and has only recently returned to Namibian waters to breed) fall within the NIMPA (Roux et al., 2001). The NIMPA provides crucial breeding and feeding habitat to a large proportion of the global population of Heaviside’s dolphins at the centre of its distribution (Roux et al., 2001). Furthermore, the extensive kelp beds between Sylvia Hill and Chameis Bay provide important habitat for rock lobsters, including juveniles, immature and egg-bearing females (Currie et al., 2008). Leatherbacks from the Western Indian ocean also use these Namibian Islands as a foraging ground (Harris et al., 2017).

 Importance for threatened, endangered or declining species and/or habitats


Rank: High

The Namibian Islands EBSA constitute crucial breeding habitat for several seabird species endemic to the southern African region, including the globally Endangered African Penguin, Cape Cormorant and Bank Cormorant, as well as the locally Critically Endangered Cape Gannet (Simmons et al., 2015). The breeding populations of these species continue to decline globally, and certainly the depletion, and lack of recovery, of small pelagic fish stocks (e.g., sardine, anchovy) in southern Namibia continue to play a key role in the decline of these species locally (IUCN 2016). Also, some Critically Endangered leatherback turtles from the Western Indian Ocean that nest in South Africa use this area as a foraging ground (Harris et al., 2017). Furthermore, the Namibian Islands EBSA includes important threatened habitats (Holness et al., 2014). These include two Critically Endangered habitat types (Namaqua Intermediate Sandy Beach and Namaqua Reflective Sandy Beach), one Endangered type (Kuiseb Mixed Shore), and three Vulnerable types (Lüderitz Outer Shelf, Namaqua Exposed Rocky Shore, Namaqua Inshore; Table 1). 

 Vulnerability, fragility, sensitivity, or slow recovery


Rank:  High

Breeding seabirds, particularly penguins, are vulnerable to extreme environmental events such as heat waves or severe storms, in part because the nesting habitat has been modified by historic and, to a limited extent, more recent guano harvesting. This may be exacerbated further by the effects of climate change (Griffiths et al., 2005; Kemper et al., 2007). Sea-level rise will threaten the existence and/or spatial extent of the low-lying islands (Roux 2003). In addition, the lack of good-quality small pelagic prey (because of stock depletion followed by a lack of recovery) has led to degraded seabird foraging habitats. These habitats may be further degraded through increasing marine mining activities and coastal industrialization, as well as changes in climate (including warm-water and/or low-oxygen events) in the vicinity of the islands and in key foraging areas. 

 Biological productivity


Rank: Medium

The NIMPA is situated within the intensive LUC, which induces high levels of productivity and thus abundant fish and higher trophic level populations. However, the depletion of small pelagic fish stocks in the late 1960s through over-fishing, particularly in southern Namibia, has resulted in a degraded marine ecosystem (Roux et al., 2013), characterized by a decrease in productivity and changes in the overall trophic function in this area.


 Biological diversity


Rank: Low

As a cold-water and predominantly sandy-bottomed marine environment, the northern Benguela Current ecosystem is considered relatively poor in biological diversity compared to more tropical or substrate-diverse marine ecosystems. However, the coastline and near-shore waters along which the NIMPA is situated are characterized by both rocky and sandy substrates, which support a limited (and poorly studied) array of micro- and macroscopic benthos, including seaweeds and invertebrate species (Sakko 1998, Harris et al., 1998). The biodiversity in the inter-tidal zones of the islands tends to be greater than elsewhere in the area, possibly due to high nutrient input from seabird guano. Altogether, 140 species have been recorded in the EBSA (OBIS 2017).




Rank: High

The islands themselves have been modified from their pristine states through anthropogenic impacts such as intensive guano scraping activities on the islands (Griffiths et al., 2005). However, the area overall is in good and improving condition, and is fully included in the Marine Protected Area. The surrounding marine environment is well within the Namibian 200 m no-trawl protection zone. Purse-seining is prohibited within the NIMPA in order to encourage the recovery of small pelagic fish stocks that are vital to the area’s ecosystem health and functioning. A commercial and recreational lobster fishery is located along the southern coast of Namibia. Coastal development and marine mining in the area have been limited but are expected to expand. Although there have been significant historical impacts (especially on the islands specifically) and there are regional risks from adjacent areas, 91 % of the Namibian Islands EBSA was classified as being in good condition, based on current levels of impacting activities (Holness et al., 2014). This is consistent with the inclusion of the entire area in the NIMPA.



Boyer, D.C., Hampton, I. 2001. An overview of the marine living resources of Namibia. South African Journal of Science, 23: 5-35.

Currie, H., Grobler, K., Kemper, J. 2008. Concept note, background document and management proposal for the declaration of Marine Protected Areas on and around the Namibian islands and adjacent coastal areas.

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EBSA criteria met at a high (red), medium (orange) or low (yellow) rank. 


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