In a government decision that goes against all accepted scientific and conservation research, Africa’s oldest marine protected areas is now open to fishing and exploitation.
From 15th December 2015 to 31st March 2016, up to 1 000 registered fishermen will be using their rods and reels to catch some of the country’s most endangered fish species in the Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area.
Proclaimed in 1964, South Africa’s marine equivalent of Kruger National Park lies on the southern Cape coast east of Plettenberg Bay. It stretches for 80kms along the shoreline from Nature’s Valley to Storms River, and one kilometre offshore.
This pristine rocky shoreline is home to more than 200 species of fish, many of which are found only near South Africa’s shores.
Less than 9 percent of the country’s 3 500km coastline is off-limits to fishing or exploitation. In the past century, line fishermen have wiped out most in-shore fish stocks.
The country’s marine protected areas were implemented to give protection to at least some of the last remaining line fish populations. The Tsitsikamma MPA is considered one of the most important, giving protection to eleven of South Africa’s 17 threatened fish species.
Now the Department of Environment has opened 20 percent of this short stretch of pristine shoreline to registered fishermen in the local area. For several years, communities have campaigned to government to allow fishing here, claiming they lost their subsistence fishing rights more than 50 years ago.
(Photo: Steve Benjamin)
Four zones will be opened in a so-called pilot project that began on 15 December and will last until 1st March 2016.
“Many of the species are more critically endangered than the rhino,” said marine conservationist Peter Chadwick. “With a permit, you can now fish for one of these endangered species. It’s like selling permits to people to shoot rhino in Kruger even though rhinos have been almost wiped out from the rest of Africa.”
And Tsitsikamma is not the first MPA to be opened to fishing. The recent opening of Dwesa Marine Protected Area in the Eastern Cape has set a precedent for the exploitation of other protected shorelines.
The opening of MPAs has been proposed several times in the past, but until now government has honoured the science which shows that opening these protected shorelines would be detrimental to fish stocks, and future food security.
In 2000, Minister of Environment Valli Moosa declared line fishing under a state of emergency because of over-exploitation, and the situation has only deteriorated since then, explained Chadwick.
“In 2007 and 2010, there was a big push to open the MPA, but Minister van Schalkwyk kept it closed to fishing, because of the scientific research that showed how negatively fishing would impact on fish stocks both within and outside protected areas.”
The decision to open the Tsitsikamma MPA is a political issue, according to Chadwick.
“Every time that elections have approached, the opening up of Tsitsikamma has come onto the political agenda,” said Peter Chadwick.
“This is not about subsistence fishing. Most fishermen in the area already have other jobs. This is about destroying some of the last remaining fish stocks in the country, to gain votes at the next municipal election and keep politicians in power.”
Chadwick says that even though there was no public consultation in 1964, when the MPA was proclaimed, the current decision by national government and South African National Parks to open the MPA came without any similar public participation process.
“There’s been no public participation and the public comment period will only be closing by 1st Feb. Yet the fishing has already started and will continue for three and a half months.”
Scientists from organisations like WWF of South Africa estimate it will take no more than 40 days to destroy 50 years of marine conservation at Tsitsikamma, if fishing is allowed.
The decision comes at a time when marine biodiversity is in serious trouble. More than 90 percent of the world’s commercial fish stocks are either fully or overexploited. In South Africa, many of the fish species are in a state of collapse.
South African National Parks marine biologists Kyle Smith and Nick Hanekom have researched the Tsitsikamma shoreline extensively, and explain that most of the fish species take up to 15 years to reach sexual maturity.
“The black musselcracker, for example, only becomes a sexually mature male after approximately 18 years, and has a potential life span of 45 years,” explains Hanekom in an article on South African National Park’s website. “The late maturity and long life span of reef fish species makes them vulnerable to over-exploitation.”
“Fishing rapidly depletes the abundance of old individuals, which have much higher egg or sperm production than young ones. This results in a massive decrease in the reproductive capacity of the population and reduced juvenile recruitment.”
Most of the fish species are also highly resident, meaning adult fish stick to one area of shoreline their whole lives. So once an area has been fished out, it’s unlikely to be repopulated by new individuals.
“In the early days, no one really believed that MPAs would make any difference,” explained marine scientist Dr Colin Attwood from University of Cape Town.
“Most people thought that line anglers had no impact on fish stocks. Instead, everyone blamed trawlers. Fishermen and scientists thought that fish moved around so much that it wouldn’t help closing a particular area.”
But many fish spend their whole lives within a certain area.
“No one at the time would have believed that a galjoen spends most of its life in an area of 300m to 400m.”
(Photo: Steve Benjamin)
Marine protected areas are critical for the sustainability of fish in the rest of the unprotected coastline, where fishing is allowed.
“Most of the benefit is the result of the spread of eggs and larvae,” Attwood said. “A fish can lay 200 000 to 500 000 eggs in a season, and these hatch into larvae. Both the eggs and larvae are at the mercy of currents, which distribute them all over the ocean.”
“In other words, Tsitsikamma is home to a centralised breeding stock which can repopulate a much larger area. The analogy is a bit like having money in the bank. If you have a certain amount of capital, then you can live off the interest. Explained this way, fishermen may realize that you can’t take everything out of the sea all at once. You have to leave a core number of fish to breed.”
South Africa’s marine protected areas have proven highly effective in conserving fish species.
South African National Parks’ scientist Kyle Smith found that within the Tsitsikamma MPA there is a greater abundance and diversity of fish whilst the average fish size is larger.
“In some instances the abundance has been six times greater within the park compared to outside,” Smith said.
A 1989 study conducted in the Tsitsikamma MPA revealed that the density of Red Roman was approximately 42 times higher in the MPA than in nearby fishing grounds.
The benefits of protecting Tsitsikamma’s shores are clear, not only for conservation reasons, but also for communities that fish outside the protected areas. But because of the lack of enforcement of bag and size limits on most of the country’s unprotected shores, communities have essentially “run-out” of fish, and are now targeting protected shorelines.
According to Chadwick, there is a much larger ethical issue at stake.
“Already 90 percent of South Africa’s coastline has been over-fished. If we can’t fish sustainably on most of our shoreline, then should we be allowed to fish within invaluable marine protected areas, which are critical to the country’s overall conservation objectives?”
Scott Ramsay is a photojournalist focusing on national parks, nature reserves and community conservancy in Africa.