Community anglers are threatening tourist safety if fishing rights are not granted, spurring the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) on in opening up parts of the Tsitsikamma marine protected area (MPA) to allow fishing – a move which marine experts are calling flawed and likely to devastate fish stocks.
Fishermen from the surrounding communities, who have been pressurising the DEA to reinstate their fishing rights since the Tsitsikamma MPA was declared a no-take zone in 2000, are becoming impatient, resorting to threats and protests.
Members of the community claim that fishing in the reserve is their historical right and will add to their livelihoods by alleviating poverty. They have indicated that a failure to get those rights will pose a threat to tourists in the area.
“The communities were never consulted in 2000 when they took away our rights to the sea and our people are angry and will fight for their constitutional rights,” says Tsitsikamma Angling Forum member Henrico Bruiners “If they do not get access to the sea they cannot guarantee the safety of tourists, especially those walking the Otter Trail.”
The DEA announced a proposal in November to open the no-take zone and gazetted draft regulations to allow registered members from communities between Covie and Bloukrans, including communities within the Koukamma Municipality, to apply for recreational fishing permits.
A four week pilot phase to allow fishing in the MPA was approved by the DEA in December, only to be legally halted by a group of conservationists, Friends of Tsitsikamma, on the grounds that the department’s procedure was unlawful by allowing fishing ahead of closure for public comment on the proposed rezoning of the reserve.
They said the department was bowing to pressure from enraged fishers and even a short period open to fishing will have lasting detrimental effects on the reserve’s fish population – which is considered a crucial seeding ground for South Africa’s fisheries.
“No-take MPA’s are essential in providing a refuge and allow protected populations to recover in both number and size and to contribute to adjacent exploited populations through spill over,” says Bruce Mann, Senior Scientist at the Durban Oceanographic Research Institute.
Professor Peter Britz from the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science at Rhodes University says traditional fishing rights can be restored in terms of the Constitution which recognises traditional and customary rights even if they are not defined in law.
According to DEA spokesperson, Zolile Nqayi, restitution cannot be applied to the sea and the proposed rezoning is not to restore real rights. “It’s an attempt to address the fact that these communities have been denied access to enjoy and use marine resources which they have historically been allowed to undertake prior to declaring the MPA.”
But Friends of Tsitiskamma remain concerned that the lack of policy will allow a greater number of fishers into the reserve, heightening the impact on sensitive marine resources and setting a precedent that will compromise other protected areas.
“The current lack of due process in Tsitsikamma has the potential to undermine all protected areas in South Africa, both marine and terrestrial,” says marine biologist, Professor Mandy Lombard.
Meanwhile experts have clearly indicated to the DEA the dire consequences of allowing fishing in the MPA which will result in a rapid decline of fish stocks.
“Resident fish populations within these controlled zones will be depleted very quickly, even with the bag limits proposed,” says Bruce Mann.
With 500 fisherman registering at SANParks for the pilot phase, each permitted to fish for four days a month and limited to ten fish per day, an average of 20 000 fish are destined to be pulled out of the water every month.
Previous attempts were made to open the Tsitsikamma MPA to fishing in 2007 and 2010, but the then environmental ministers took heed to scientific advice, deciding not to allow fishing and appealing to local communities to respect their decision which was in the interest to the nation as a whole.