Bonanza for poachers? KZN loses fisheries control
"Marine scientists fear that poaching and overfishing in KwaZuluNatal will rise sharply because of the government’s abrupt decision to dump Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife as custodian of the province’s 560km coastline and marine resources."
Responding to queries from The Mercury, the national fisheries department has confirmed that it is cancelling Ezemvelo’s long-standing contract to monitor and patrol the KZN coastline – but has failed to provide any reasons for the decision.
Fisheries experts say they have been told that the decision may be part of a “vote-catching move” by senior political figures to relax fishery control regulations for the benefit of coastal communities.
Ezemvelo, and its predecessor the Natal Parks Board, have been responsible for coastal patrols and monitoring of the coastline for several decades.
The decision came to light after Ann McDonnell, the DA spokeswoman on KZN environmental affairs, received information that the Ezemvelo contract was being cancelled by the national Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. McDonnell is convinced that the decision is motivated more by politics than sound marine science and she has demanded answers on the rationale for the move.
Demanded Judy Mann, conservation strategist for the SA Association for Marine and Biological Research, said: “The implications are pretty serious. KZN probably has the best coastal monitoring system in the country and if this now goes over to fisheries, I fear we will lose that. Ezemvelo and its predecessors have been looking after our coast for decades and to remove this competency is very sad. “It seems silly to me to break down something that has worked for decades.”
An independent fisheries scientist with close insights into the latest developments said he had been asked not to discuss the matter. “But if no one stands up to say something I fear we are going to witness a tragedy along our coastline.” He said the rationale for the move seemed to be “shrouded in politics”. He had been told that a senior political figure in the national government had visited KZN some months ago and expressed “horror” that coastal communities were subjected to minimum fish size and bag limits by Ezemvelo officers. He allegedly promised to deploy more lenient national government officers to the province to allow more open access to sea fishing.
The former Natal Parks Board was responsible for shore patrols, boat inspections and other provincial enforcement functions for several decades, but that changed in the late 1990s when new national government responsibilities were declared under the Marine Living Resources Act. While the former Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and its Marine Coastal Management division had delegated coastal monitoring in KZN to Ezemvelo, a ministerial portfolio reshuffle in 2007 led to a further splitting of functions between the Department of Environmental Affairs and the new Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
The scientist said that while there was “room for improvement”, Ezemvelo had a “good system of coastal law enforcement” involving 15 coastal zones from Kosi Bay in the north to Port Edward in the south. If Ezemvelo now withdrew approximately 80 marine conservation staff, fisheries would have to deploy and train an equivalent number of new staff. “It seems ludicrous and a complete waste of money to bring in new people who will have to be paid, trained, housed and provided with vehicles and other equipment before they can even start doing their jobs.”
The cancellation was also likely to jeopardise a decades-long marine research project aimed at ensuring the continued health of KZN’s marine resources. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife declined to comment on a list of questions from The Mercury, stating only that “in the event that the contract is withdrawn, Ezemvelo will not have any challenges in redeploying the marine staff to terrestrial areas”.
Responding to similar questions, Fisheries said the Ezemvelo contract would be terminated from July 31. On whether there had been consultations to resolve any issues of concern with Ezemvelo, Fisheries said: “The decision is final. No attempts are being made to extend the contract”. The department did not respond to a request to provide full reasons for this decision. McDonnell said: “This grab of KZN competencies by national government is shocking. Why interfere when something is working?
“The DA in KZN is convinced this move is more to do with politics as the ANC attempts to butter up certain sectors of the population prior to the local government elections. Certainly it has nothing to do with marine science and best practice.” McDonnell said she was shocked to hear that Ezemvelo officers had been accused of behaving “unlawfully and aggressively” in carrying out their duties to protect marine resources and prevent illegal gill net fishing.
“If there is no effective monitoring, this will mean ‘open house’ to unscrupulous fishermen and possibly opening the door for driving on the beach once again, thus undoing years of wonderful conservation work.
“We expect some proper answers from the department. Our marine heritage is not a pawn for politicians to play with.”