Call to ban octopus nets

The Bryde's whale in Miller's Point.

Environmentalists want government to rethink the use of octopus nets after a Bryde’s whale got entangled in one near Miller’s Point and died.

Activists have petitioned Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs Minister Barbara Creecy, and the issue of protection of whales was raised in Parliament on Thursday June 20, after the death of the Bryde’s whale on Monday June 10.

The octopus nets are used by commercial fisherman, Garry Nel, who was awarded an experimental octopus licence from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries 15 years ago.

Muizenberg film-maker and conservationist, Craig Foster, has spent eight years researching the kelp forests of the False Bay coastline and has identified octopus – the “world’s most intelligent invertebrate” – as a keystone species in the ecology of the area.

He opposes the nets, saying a collapse of octopus populations could prove catastrophic for the eco-system.

“Let’s consider for a moment that octopus learn faster than any dog or cat and can work out geometry problems. That’s one factor. The other is the damage nets do to whales,” he said.

“We don’t want the dead whale twisting on the ropes to be symbolic of our own future because we failed to act.”

He questioned how an experimental licence awarded for research purposes could operate as a commercial fishery and said that Bryde’s whales were particularly vulnerable to octopus trap lines or nets.

Marine biologist, Dr Jannes Landschoff, who is affiliated with non-profit environmental group Seachange, asked why no data was publicly known from the research and questioned whether the annual quota of 50 tons was viable as so little was known about number of octopus in the ecosystem.

Swati Thiyagarajan, head of conservation and campaigns for Seachange, said Bryde’s whales were year-round residents in our coastal waters.

“Very little is known about these animals. We don’t even know what conservation status it falls under because we have no idea of how many there are. There could be a decent enough number or a very low one, therefore the death of every one is crucial and tragic,” she said.

Meanwhile, Narend Singh, the IFP’s chief whip and the party’s spokesman on the environment, raised the death of the Bryde’s whale – which is suspected to have died in the octopus nets – in Parliament on Thursday June 20 saying the party deplored the “wanton destruction of such iconic marine life”.

The IFP has called for a moratorium on octopus fishing until whatever data Mr Nel has handed to DAFF is independently verified, and until octopus-fishing gear can be certified as safe for whales.

Both Mr Foster and Mr Nel attended the session in Parliament on Thursday June 20 to discuss protection measures for whales.

Mr Nel told the False Bay Echo that DAFF was well acquainted with the data he had collected and that every single line dropped had meticulous information attached which was collated by DAFF.

He said his octopus fishing licence was an explorative one and that while the first 12 years had proven fruitless, in the last few years significant progress had been made, which was paving the way for future octopus fisheries.

He said his nets set an international standard for safe and effective octopus fishing practices, and he employed 52 local people.

“Despite claims that eight whales have died in the space of five years under these circumstances, this was the first whale death in a year and a half as a result of the octopus nets,” Mr Nel said.

The nets had been changed at the end of 2017 and in 2018 there had been no whale entanglements at all.

“While even one death is too many, and I sincerely regret it, I want it to be known that we are already over and above compliant with industry standards,” he said.

He denied allegations on social media that the nets were placed in marine protected areas.

The casualties from octopus fishing were minimal compared to other fishing industries that had “40 to 50” whale deaths without counting ship strikes, he said.

Also not taken into account, he argued, was global warming’s effect on the migratory paths of whales that were beaching themselves with pneumonia or starving to death because their food sources were dying out.

Whales were in trouble globally, he said. Iceland had announced this year that it would allow 2 000 whales to be hunted over the next five years. Norway upped its annual whaling quota last year 28% to 1 278 whales, and in the first month of its whaling season, 15 minke whales had been killed. In December 2018, Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission to resume commercial whaling in its own waters.

While Kalk Bay was used as a whaling station many years ago, South Africa comprehensively banned whaling in 1979.

Mr Nel said the heavier gear he used kept the whales stable until they could be cut free, whereas gill nets or trawling nets entangled the whales but were light enough to be carried away deep into the sea. He said sabotage of commercial fishing gear resulted in more uncounted and preventable whale deaths.

Mr Nel said he was the first commercial fisherman to voluntarily take the whale disentanglement course offered by the South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN) and that he and his two skippers who had also done the course, regularly assisted with whale disentanglements resulting from most forms of fishing.

Craig Lambinon, spokesman for SAWDN, said Mr Nel and his skippers were an integral part of the whale disentangling network.

“Our experience is that octopus fishing, comparatively speaking with regards to all forms of fishing, causes the least damage to whales, by far,” Mr Lambinon said.

The cause of death of the adult Bryde’s whale had not yet been officially determined, he added.

On Tuesday June 25 the False Bay Echo spoke to a DAFF official whose comment was not cleared by the department’s communications channels in time for the print deadline. This comment will be run next week.