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14 Mar 2019

Walls of death destroy Tugela fish stocks

(North Coast Courier)

Nature lover and former school teacher Geoff Embling, a newcomer to KZN from the Eastern Cape, is disturbed about the presence of illegal gill nets in the Tugela River, a rich breeding ground for many of the marine species in KwaZulu-Natal waters. This is his story.

The Tugela is the largest river in KZN and it is one of the most beautiful rivers in the country. Having a vast catchment area of about 29 100 sq km, enough water flows down the Tugela to keep the mouth constantly open, and the tidal part is known for its excellent saltwater fishing.

In January 2019 I visited Tugela Mouth for the first time. The view is breath-taking. A vast river curves down a valley pocketed with thick, subtropical vegetation.

Staring down at the valley brought a sense of awe, knowing that my granddad, who loved fishing in the Tugela, had taken in the same magnificent scenery and probably felt the same wonder mixed with excitement at the thought of catching spotted grunter and kob (daga salmon or kabeljou).

Sea Turtles

My friend and I walked in different directions along the bank, casting into the estuary with lures, and suddenly she called from near the river mouth, beckoning and pointing into the river. I jogged along the bank expecting to see some small fry being chased on the surface by game fish, and then I saw the sea turtles – five or six of them, about 2 x 1,5m wide.

The tide was coming in and the turtles, paddling against the last bit of the incoming tide, were staying in much the same place, “treading water” and surfacing every minute or so. It was such a treat to see these huge creatures for the first time, and it wasn’t long before the tide turned and they drifted happily out to sea with the outgoing current. After a tranquil evening and a lovely braai, I went to bed happy, feeling hopeful that I would catch a fish the next day.

In the morning we hired a canoe from the backpackers next door and went across the river to do some fishing on the far bank. We fished the river mouth for a few hours, without success, and then paddled up river on the incoming tide, fishing along the way. I foul hooked a large swimming prawn, the best bait for a whole range of fish species.

I tackled up another rod, secured the swimming prawn onto a hook and drifted it slowly behind the boat, expecting a bite any minute. It was nearing midday, and as we drifted further and further up river, I started wondering what was going on.

I’ve fished in estuaries since I was six years old, and it was the strangest thing not to get a bite all morning. Furthermore, it was perplexing to see long poles sticking out of the river in various places, usually about a third of the distance across the river. Someone must have lodged the poles pretty deeply into the river bed to stop them getting washed away by the tide.

The penny dropped

I started to get an ominous feeling which I couldn’t put my finger on, and as we rounded a slight bend my friend suddenly said, “Hey, what’s that guy doing with that long net”? At once the penny dropped and my heart sank as I realised that this river was not the pristine environment I had thought it was, and that it was being raped by gill netters. There was a man in a canoe and another man on the opposite bank a few hundred metres upstream, and each of them were unravelling and setting gill nets which looked about 50 metres long.

Estuaries are often shallow in certain parts, and spanning these nets across an estuary will catch just about every fish of a certain size and bigger, which decimates fish populations like nothing else.

Gill nets are known as “walls of death” and they are especially deadly at night when unsuspecting fish swim into them and their gills become entangled in the mesh, leaving the fish suspended to die.

It all made sense now – a pristine-looking environment with poles sticking out of the water, and an inordinate number of small mullet scattering away as we paddled the boat, with no predatory fish to eat them; and no other recreational fishermen up the river even though it was Sunday.

My disappointment quickly turned to anger and my first thought was to paddle up to the gill netters and confront them, but reason took over after considering that I was alone with a girl.

A friend of mine from the Eastern Cape told me how the highly illegal practice of gill netting was wrecking the fishing in certain estuaries near East London.

A friend from university did his Ichthyology thesis on determining the age of spotted grunter. He had permission from nature conservation to gill net for a specified period on the Fish River, and I accompanied my friend on a few night trips.

I knew the Fish River quite well and had caught a number of fish there, but gill netting opened up a whole new insight to what was really in the river. I remember being astounded at the number of spotted grunter and other species we caught, and the fish were really big – way bigger than the ones we caught from the bank.

Vital breeding grounds

Estuaries are vital breeding grounds for a number of species of fish, such as spotted grunter and the dusky kob (kabeljou), which is the king of the estuary and can grow to well over 50kg. When kob grow to roughly a metre in length they are ready to breed, and the big breeders hang around river mouths and in estuaries, and their fry swim up the estuaries to get away from sea predators.

Targeting these big specimens has reduced the South African kob population to two percent of its pristine stock. The Tugela Mouth is a well-known kob fishing spot, and in my granddad’s day it was common to catch a 10kg kob.

The Tugela River is a breeding ground for the lobotes, or Triple-tail

Nowadays the large specimens are seldom caught, and fishermen spend a disproportionate amount of time buying lures, listening to stories, watching videos and imagining catching these elusive (and almost mythical) creatures, but they seldom catch one. (The Tugela is also a fertile breeding ground for the Lobotes, or Triple-tail fish).

Death threats

I asked a number of locals whether they knew about the poaching, which they did. The problem is deeper than it looks, and I can imagine that what I heard may not be far from the truth. Apparently, someone went up river and removed the nets a few months ago, but there were death threats and the poachers got the nets back. It is concerning that five km from the river mouth is the Harold Johnson Nature Reserve, which borders right on the river, and Red Hill Nature reserve is just four km north of Tugela Mouth.

I only spent two days at Tugela Mouth, so I don’t know whether the stories about death threats are true or false, but one thing is clear, that the relevant KZN conservation officials are not concerned about gill netting. There have been numerous appeals to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), with absolutely no luck.

Wheelbarrow loads of fish

Geoff’s story is in line with the many reports the Courier has received in recent years about uncontrolled gillnet fishing in all North Coast rivers, plus large dams such as Hazelmere, outside Tongaat.

We raised the issue with well-known Tugela Mouth resident and conservationist, Eberhard Fitsch, whose house at Oliver’s Rock overlooks the river. He confirmed that little or nothing has been done about gill netting since Ezemvelo Wildlife handed over policing functions to DAFF.

“It has been a free-for-all here since Ezemvelo Wildlife left, with more nets in the river than water. I have seen these fishermen coming out with wheelbarrows full of fish.”

However, gill netting seems to have died down in the past six months.
“I am not sure for the reason for this, either that the river has been very low or the stocks have been so depleted that it not worthwhile, but I have no doubt they will be back when conditions get better. What I can tell you is that whenever someone has approached them and pointed out that what they are doing is illegal, they have become quite aggressive.”

Fitsch said he and other locals were hoping that rumours of Ezemvelo taking back policing functions from DAFF later this year will turn out to be true.

“When Ezemvelo was here they regularly pulled all the nets out, but that hasn’t happened for the last few years,” Fitsch said.