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Classification of marine bioregions on the east coast of South Africa

T.C. Livingstone
J.M. Harris
A.T. Lombard
A.J. Smit
D.S. Schoeman


Marine bioregional planning requires a meaningful classification and spatial delineation of the ocean environment using biological and physical characteristics. The relative inaccessibility of much of the ocean and the paucity of directly measured data spanning entire planning regions mean that surrogate data, such as satellite imagery, are frequently used to develop spatial classifications. However, due to a lack of appropriate biological data, these classifications often rely on abiotic variables, which act as surrogates for biodiversity. The aim of this study was to produce a fine-scale bioregional classification, using multivariate clustering, for the inshore and offshore marine environment off the east coast of South Africa, adjacent to the province of KwaZulu-Natal and out to the boundary of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), 200 nautical miles offshore. We used remotely sensed data of sea surface temperature, chlorophyll a and turbidity, together with interpolated bathymetry and continental-slope data, as well as additional inshore data on sediments, seabed oxygen and bottom temperature. A multivariate k-means analysis  was used to produce a fine-scale marine bioregionalisation, with three bioregions subdivided into 12 biozones. The offshore classification was primarily a pelagic bioregionalisation, whereas the inshore classification (on the continental shelf) was a coupled benthopelagic bioregionalisation, owing to the availability of benthic data for this area. The resulting classification was used as a base layer for a systematic conservation plan developed for the province, and provided the methods for subsequent planning conducted for the entire South African EEZ. Validation of the classification is currently being conducted in marine research programmes that are sampling benthic biota and habitats in a sampling design stratified according to the biozones delineated in this study.

Keywords: benthopelagic zone, bioregionalisation, biophysics, continental shelf, habitat maps, KwaZulu-Natal, marine environment, remotely sensed data, spatial distribution, conservation planning