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Tsitsikama Marine Protected Area opened to fishing

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Attempt by marine scientists to reverse SANParks permission to fish in the sensitive MPA has been blocked by a High Court judge

An application to halt a pilot period for recreational fishing in the Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area (MPA) because it could cause irreparable damage has been struck off the roll by a Pretoria High Court judge. His reasoning was that it was not urgent and, in his words, ‘we lose things every day.

On December 15 the Department of Environmental Affairs unilaterally opened the MPA to fishers ahead of the closing date for public comment on the proposal. The Friends of Tsitsikamma, consisting of marine experts and scientists, then applied to the Pretoria High Court to block the move, calling it unconstitutional and unlawful.

The Department of Environmental Affairs published draft regulations in November that it intended to withdraw the protection afforded to the ‘no take’ zones of the MPA. The closing date for public comment was set 1 February 2016.

Under pressure from the Tsitsikamma community to allow registered members to fish in the national park, however, the Minister approved SANPark’s request – without public comment – for a 30 day pilot phase, beginning on 15 December. This will allow anglers to fish in four designated zones of the MPA to ‘test’ the implementation of the draft regulations.

According to Friends of Tsitsikamma, the agreement between SANParks and the community of the Koukamma area is illegal as legislation states that until the no take status has been lawfully suspended, SANParks is obliged to uphold the existing status quo.

The group claims that implementing the pilot phase before closure of public comment is irregular and in contravention of constitutional rights and ‘makes a mockery of the public consultation process’.

The Tsitsikamma National Park is the oldest marine protected area in Southern Africa and was promulgated as a no take zone under the Marine Living Resources Act in 2000. It is highly valued as an important marine ‘seeding’ ground for long-living fish stock.

The decision to allow fishing in the area could have far reaching negative effects on both South Africa’s fisheries industry and tourism. Experts say that the scientific evidence of the ecological effects the fishing will have on marine life has been ignored and it is likely that fish populations could be severely affected, even in the pilot phase.

‘Given that most of the species are resident and long-lived, many belonging to species that have been heavily depleted,’ said Bruce Mann, professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, UCT, ‘there’s a high probability that depletion will be rapid. This will counter the role of the park as a ground for accumulation of breeding stock and supply to adjacent areas.’

Plettenberg Bay residents and businesses are also concerned that threatening the sensitive ecological balance of the marine park will impact on the bay and ultimately the local economy.

“The survival of tourism and the economy of Plettenberg Bay is dependent on a healthy bay by seeding of fish stocks from the MPA,’ said Tony Lubner, CEO of the Orca Foundation in Plettenberg Bay. ‘Once threatened, the long term impact on our economy and subsequent job losses will follow, including the loss to recreational, commercial and subsistence fisherman living along the coastal areas adjacent to the MPA.’

Despite the High Court’s ruling, Friends of Tsitiskamma are undeterred, stating that they still view the pilot phase as unlawful and will look at alternative options to pursue the matter legally.

SANParks and the Minister say they are open to further discussions with the group but have stated that representatives of the community must also be present. The Minister’s decision to allow the pilot phase to commence in mid-December ahead of public participation, however, remains unclear.

The Koukamma community has threatened to close down the park if they do not get fishing rights.

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