St Lucia estuary breach: minister demands answers over decision

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The Isimangaliso Wetland Park Authority has come under fire for its decision to breach the St Lucia estuary mouth.
The Isimangaliso Wetland Park Authority has come under fire for its decision to breach the St Lucia estuary mouth.

Environment Minister Barbara Creecy has asked the management of the Isimangaliso Wetlands Park Authority to justify its decision to breach the St Lucia estuary mouth.

From January 4-6, heavy machinery removed tons of beach sand to link the ocean with Lake St Lucia — prompting a mix of joy and outrage from residents, conservationists and scientists.

The iSimangaliso Action Group (IAG) claims the decision to breach the estuary mouth failed to follow proper environmental management practices, as required under the National Environmental Management Act (Nema).

It has written a letter to the chief executive officer of the authority, Sibusiso Bukhosini, asking why no environmental impact assessment was conducted before the breach was done, and which institution authorised it to go ahead.

“It has been about eight years since the Lake St Lucia, Umfolozi and Msundizi Rivers last connected with the sea, resulting in the lake system becoming a fresh water system — an ecological challenge which needed an immediate attention...”
Communication and PR manager for Isimangaliso, Bheki Manzini.

The IAG also wants to know what ongoing scientific monitoring is being undertaken to measure and evaluate the impacts and efficacy of the breach.

“We supported the original approach ... of allowing nature to take its course and the restoration of the Imfo­lozi River to flow back into the St Lucia lake system [as] this had gone through an internationally funded project and was based on scientific studies.

“To-date no scientific studies have been produced and publicly disclosed to justify the breaching ...”

The IAG’s concerns were echoed by a group of scientists, some of whom have worked in the Lake St Lucia estuary since the 1970s.

They have written to Creecy saying the breach is contrary to recommendations made by the authority and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), following the global environment facility project, which ran from November 2014 to February 2017.

“The major recommendation from that project was that natural processes should be allowed to re-establish; the uMfolozi River should be allowed to re-join the Lake St Lucia estuary, and allowed to fulfil its dual role as a source of fresh water and a driver of mouth inlet dynamics.

“It specifically recommended that no artificial breaching of the mouth was to take place,” the scientists said.

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They also claim the decision goes against a high court ruling in May 2016, which dismissed an application by the Umfolozi Sugar Planters Ltd (UCOSP) and two farmers to compel the park authority to artificially breach the Umfo­lozi River mouth.

“The judge found that the natural process of back-flooding with a closed mouth is part of the natural dynamic of an estuary and to artificially breach would ‘prejudice the environmental advances’ that had already been made in restoring the Lake St Lucia Estuary.”

Those in favour of the breach believe, however, that it will help reinstate the functionality of the estuary, restoring the off-shore shallow water prawn fishery, help provide nursery grounds for migrant fish and invertebrates, and provide feeding grounds for birds.

Professor Janine Adams, from Wildoceans SA, which is working with the authority, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and the stakeholders and communities that depend on and live around the marine protected area, said: “The St Lucia estuary is one of the biggest in the country and the hope is that restoring its function will see thriving nursery grounds for reef fish and prawns, as well as the restoration of mangrove systems.”

Bheki Manzini, communication and PR manager for Isimangaliso, said the park’s authority had consulted with scientific experts, tourism operators, conservation managers, NGOs, rural community representatives, fishers, farmers and business owners before it took the decision to breach the estuary mouth.

“It has been about eight years since the Lake St Lucia, Umfolozi and Msundizi Rivers last connected with the sea, resulting in the lake system becoming a fresh water system — an ecological challenge which needed an immediate attention in line with the approved estuarine management plan for the St Lucia Estuary,” Manzini added.

Albu Modise, spokesperson for DEFF, said Creecy had a meeting with the park’s management authority last Friday to discuss the decision.

“The minister has asked the management authority to give her a report on the circumstances which the management authority believes justifies the intervention,” he said.

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