‘Hoe veel het julle gevang?’ I asked the two fishermen staring out to a grey violent ocean. I was on the Kleinkrans beach documenting the corpse of a baby Bottlenose Dolphin that had washed up the previous afternoon for the SA Marine Stranding group. Walking from the parking area, I had followed a set of footprints of the two gents as they had headed down the shoreline. Their tracks showed that they had regularly paused to cast their lines, reeled in, moved on for a few hundred meters to again test the waters in search of a more productive spot.
In response, they shook their heads and raised their hands in the universal gesture of nothing. ‘Niks meneer. Net ń verkoue in die wind’
Pointing their heads towards the dolphin, they asked ‘Wat maak jy?’
After explaining the measurements that I was taking and what they would be used for, we chatted about catch rates through the decades that they had been fishing. Their response was the standard observation of shoreline fishermen in the region. Fish size had decreased and catches were less frequent with commercial fishing being the root cause.
Having researched the impact of shore based recreational fishing on marine biodiversity, I asked if they ever considered what the impact of their lost lead sinkers over the years of fishing the same stretch of coastline would have on reef health. Uncertain, they answered that they hadn’t really thought about it. We covered more topics like ghost fishing by snagged baited hooks, physical damage to the reef and reef communities caused by dragging tackle during gear recovery, the consequence of shark discards on marine productivity and biodiversity as well as the risk of entanglements of birds and marine fauna caused by snagged monofilament.
As elderly subsistence fishermen, they admitted that they had never considered these factors, but could understand the combined long term impact of lost recreational gear, even just through their lifetime.
Marine education is key to sustainability
It only was when I began describing the vibrant reef life observed when diving, that they reeled in their gear and plied me with questions. Lacking the opportunity to learn to swim and free dive in their youth, they had never experienced the extent of what was to them, the unseen diversity of marine life that they were so reliant on for protein in their diet.
The conversation evolved into a discussion of fishing through their lives, but when I steered the conversation towards the reproductive strategy and growth rates of fish and invertebrates, particularly the intertidal invertebrates, they became very interested. The sheer diversity of reproduction strategies from size triggered sexual maturity, sex reversal, spawning migrations, geographical spawning aggregations, and income and capital reproduction overwhelmed them. Digesting the information, Ronnie asked what they could do to improve fishing along the section of shoreline that they regularly fish and harvest bait.
Scope for community based marine conservation
A complex issue at the best of times, a local departure point would be a broad based approach that combined both Marine Protected Areas and some community defined rotating exclusion zones. The latter, as a section of approximately 500m of shoreline left for between 18 to 24 months would allow the production base of the intertidal trophic levels to both recover and ‘grow out’. If a 2km strip of shoreline demarcated by a community and divided into four rotating zones comprising an exclusion (reproductive) zone, a bait collection zone, a fishing zone and a recovery (grow out) zone, the sustainable productivity along the that section of coastline would rapidly increase.
While the above model would function well for sustainable utilization on a community level, on a grander scale for the blue economy, reproduction and production of marine fauna and flora needs to be protected in an integrated manner. South Africa currently has 42 Marine Protected Areas, each one designated to protect a bouquet of marine species in areas that are crucial for specific species.
The Goukamma Marine Protected Area in the Southern Cape between Buffalo bay and Sedgefield was proclaimed as a MPA in 1990 to protect the South African endemic scarlet seabass (Chrysoblephus laticeps), locally known as Red Roman. Red Roman, a sex reversal species is a benthic resident. With stocks of Red Roman in general decline across it’s range, the Goukamma MPA was established to protect the species.
With reef fishing excluded from the MPA, the population successfully improved and dispersal fish moved out of the MPA into the surrounding areas. Obviously, while this MPA was established for a single species, the benefits of a protected area would extend to a variety of marine species across the entire marine trophic cascades. The Goukamma MPA is one of the few globally that was extensively studied pre and post proclamation. The result was a rapid success, with Red Roman populations recovering well and surrounding recreational and commercial fishermen reaping the benefits.
Research in Kenya has shown that both subsistence and commercial fishing in areas up to 20km flanking a marine protected area benefit substantially by increased production. Overall, catches increase in weight and individual size of fish increase significantly, contributing to a decline in catch effort.
MPA’s not only offer protection for utilizable marine species, but benefit other species. The Cape Fur Seal (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) population on the Robberg Peninsula is another success story. Decimated as a result of severe utilization, the colony was extinct for the peninsula until it resettled in 1993. Growth was sustained at a low level until the early 2000’s and currently fluctuates between estimates of 4000 and 7000 individuals depending on the time of the year.
Protection beyond the boundaries of MPA’s
Public awareness of the marine ecological services provided by MPA’s are a vital component of ensuring their continued functioning. In the ever challenging world of resource extraction, both monitoring and patrolling of MPA’s are essential. Surveys of washed up fishing debris in the Southern Cape has shown that in the Goukamma MPA that between 35% and 60% of fishing debris (demersal shark longline, crab [pots and trawl nets)mapped in the the Southern Cape between Storms River and Wilderness washes up within the MPA. By contrast, less than 10% washes up in the Titsikamma MPA. Possible causes of the high rate of lost gear in the vicinity of the Goukamma MPA may be rough seabed, inappropriate gear setting or lack of patrols, additional studies are required to determine why the loss of commercial fishing gear is so high and if the additional protection of buffer zones around the MPA may assist in reducing the amount of lost gear.
Diving in to understand the productivity of MPA’s
Packing up my equipment, it was obvious that Ronnie was fascinated by the unknown world that had provisioned him a sustainable protein resource for decades. His parting request was for a presentation to his fishing friends that would show them both the life beneath the waves and to discuss the ecological service of ‘vis teel’ that marine protect areas provide.
Returning to my vehicle, I gazed down the length of the shoreline towards Gericke’s point and the Goukamma MPA beyond and felt a beam of excitement at the future prospects of marine biodiversity along this section of coastline.
May it flourish and be sustainable beyond.
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