Coastal carnage

2012-02-10 00:00

THERE are a number of grave concerns facing South Africa’s estuarine environments. One of these is the brazen destruction of estuarine mud banks.

On certain estuaries there is a thriving “underground” market for white-worm “tapeworm”, with vast tracts of estuarine mud banks being dug up with spades during the night in order to supply this bait to fishermen. After the diggers have been at work, the mud banks end up looking like the surface of the moon, with huge, circular craters dug out with spades and forks, and sometimes they even look as though someone has ploughed them up with a tractor  — with the intricate interconnected web of worm and prawn holes all mashed up and overturned. This is not a pretty sight, and it destroys the whole habitat in which bloodworm, pencil bait, prawns and myriad other creatures live.

Furthermore, research has shown that one night’s worth of illegal bait collection with a spade or fork can take the affected estuary mud bank over two years to recover fully. This means two years less bait in that particular area for grunter, kob, steenbras, stumpnose and other species entering the estuaries to feed, as well as for a host of bird species, the livelihoods of which depend on finding food on the mud banks during low tide.


Authorities must be alerted

This practice is happening night after night, and when one area is cleaned out of bait, the raiders move on to another area. So if you see people digging up a mud bank with a spade or a fork, please report them immediately to the nearest nature conservation authority, because by doing this they are involved in a highly destructive and illegal activity. As an angler, bird watcher or nature lover, each of us has the moral obligation to help ensure the sustainability of our environment.

If you have a sea cottage overlooking a mud bank and you suspect illegal digging, then please become part of the solution to help ensure sustainability by using a pair of binoculars or a telescope, and alerting nature conservation whenever you see it happening. And last but not least, the digging and selling of white worm is directly fuelled by anglers’ demand, so next time you are offered white worm by a bait vendor, think about the destruction that you are directly funding.


Kob are being decimated

The second concern involves temporarily open and closed estuaries. These estuaries have mouths which are open to the sea at certain times of the year but closed off to the sea at other times of the year. The build-up of sand at the mouth of the estuary is caused by certain ocean currents and also by sediment coming down the river. Temporarily open and closed estuaries make perfect nurseries for juvenile fish to enable them to grow up safely, with minimal interference from predatory fish coming in and out from the sea as they do in estuaries, with permanently open mouths. When these estuaries are open, big breeding kob swim into them from the sea to rest and fatten up on the abundant shoals of mullet in order to breed. Breeding takes a lot of energy, and while the kob are fattening up, the estuaries can become closed off to the sea and trap them inside for a number of months or even years. This seems to be a natural cycle for the kob, which take it (being trapped) in their stride while making the most of their time in the closed estuary by eating as much as possible and patiently waiting for a spring tide in conjunction with heavy rainfall to breach the mouth so that they can swim out to sea again to breed.

When this finally happens, the well-fed and recuperated kob are ready and waiting to go out to sea, and at the first signs of heavy rainfall, in conjunction with fresh salt water lapping over the top of the semi-saline estuary mouth, they migrate towards the river mouth and wait for the “big event”. An estuary may be many kilometres long, but the fish sense the chemical signals generated by weather, tides and water, and respond by swimming down to the mouth to await their escape.

Now comes the unfortunate part. Kob are an excellent angling species and the big breeding fish can grow to well over 45 kilograms, so it is every salt-water angler’s dream to catch a really big kob. And fishermen are cunning. They know only too well that shoals of big kob “sitting” and waiting (sometimes for days) in deep holes near estuary mouths can get hungry while they wait, so that is when they target them. There are only a limited number of temporarily open and closed estuaries in South Africa to accommodate the shoals of breeding kob, and some fishermen make the most of this and target these estuaries. Stories abound regarding large catches of big kob at times like this.

Last year, two anglers are said to have pulled in between 60 and 80 large kob (of which they kept about 20) from a certain estuary mouth during one night’s fishing, just when the estuary mouth was busy opening up to the sea after being closed for over two years. Apparently, these individuals made video footage of the event and seem to be proud of it. This is like shooting caged animals.


Another common practice at times like this is throw-netting the large schools of fish gathered near the mouth. The raiders flock down to certain estuary mouths when they hear that they are opening up to the sea and haul in nets full of kob, grunter and white steenbras. During this period of their life cycles these fish are particularly susceptible to anglers. Wiping out the breeding stock of a species while they are at their most vulnerable is a sickening practice, which is made even more criminal when considering that the bag limit for kob is one per person per day, and that it is illegal to throw-net kob, grunter or steenbras. Throw-nets are meant for netting bait species such as mullet. And the restrictions are there for a reason —  kob numbers have collapsed and are down to two percent of their pristine population levels.

This sort of practice has led to the current restriction of one kob per day, whereas a few years ago the bag limit was five per person per day, and the restrictions haven’t stopped there. Now a complete ban on night fishing in the Breede River has been approved by the Department of Agriculture and Forestry because fishermen have been nailing the big kob there when they become active and like to feed most — at night.

I love night fishing — there are very few things that are more peaceful than sitting on a quiet river in the moonlight, in the company of nightjars and crickets, waiting for the sound of your ratchet to go. So why do others have to be restricted because of a group of selfish people who break the law and ruin it for everyone else? What if the ban is extended to other rivers, then how many fishermen will be affected?

Things will go that way unless the majority of salt-water anglers start to realise what they have, keep to the laws and release the big breeding stock, particularly white steenbras and kob caught in estuaries and off the shore.


White steenbras also vulnerable

While mentioning the white steenbras (pig-nosed grunter, “piggy” or “steenie”), there is another important thing that fishermen should be aware of.

These beautiful fish, which can weigh over 18 kilograms, are in a similar plight to the kob, and every year the big breeders make their way to the surf sections in and around sandy estuary mouths in order to breed.

Once they have bred, the tiny fingerling steenbras enter the estuaries to live and seek shelter, where they will feed on prawns and grow bigger. Once again, fishermen know that at a particular time each year they can catch big white steenbras around certain river mouths, and so they target them there and consequently haul out a lot of the breeding stock.

It is possible that many fishermen are not aware of what damage they are doing. All that they know is that at a certain time of the year big steenbras (magically) start biting in the surf sections around river mouths and in the river mouths themselves. But those big steenbras are gathered there for a reason. They are not thickly populated like that everywhere because if they were you would be able to catch them all the way up and down the coast, and we all know that is not the case at all. We need to fish with the future in mind, and certain practices by some anglers are undermining this.

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