The temporary suspension of exploratory octopus fishing last week by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) is being hailed a victory by environmentalists.
The death of a 12-metre Bryde’s whale on Monday June 10 and a young humpback whale on Friday June 28 caused a public outcry with environmentalists and the City of Cape Town calling on the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, to place a moratorium on octopus fishing.
Both whales were entangled in fishing gear off the coast of False Bay.
Since Friday, another two whales were entangled, one on Saturday June 29 near Clovelly and another near Buffels Bay, Cape Point, on Sunday.
According to AfriOceans Conservation Alliance, an NPO acting as the voice for the ocean and marine life, one of the whales was dragging fishing ropes connected to an octopus trap.
Graig Lambinon, spokesman for South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN), said unfavourable sea conditions had prevented a successful disentanglement operation on Sunday and the operation had been suspended until Monday July 1 when the whale had been freed with the help of the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), the local whale-watching boat, Southern Right, and a fishing vessel, the Albatross.
On Friday, Ms Creecy said the gear in the False Bay area would be removed and the department would seek independent scientific advice on practical measures to prevent entanglement incidents in the future.
Once enough data had been collected, she said, it would be analysed and only then a recommendation on the viability of establishing a new commercial fishery would be made.
However, activist, Allison Thomson, who started a petition against octopus fishing on Change.org said removing the traps would not be easy.
She said traps in hot spots would be removed first, and there were close to 50 sets in the False Bay area. Each set, she said, had 66 traps concreted in tyres holding them down on the ocean floor.
Only one set could be fitted into a boat a time so it could take some time for all the traps to be removed.
DAFF spokesman, Albi Modise, confirmed traps in hot spots would go first but did not how or when that would happen.
AfriOceans Conservation Alliance founder and CEO, Lesley Rochat, said whales were highly intelligent animals and gave birth to one calf after a pregnancy of 11 months, so for a calf
to come to our shores after travelling up to 25 000km a year only to die a slow and cruel death by drowning was devastating and unacceptable.
The impact of octopus fishing and the resultant fatalities had a “domino effect”, she said.
“With a recent lack of predatory great white sharks in False Bay, we have witnessed an increased number of Cape fur seals which are needing food and octopus is a valuable prey.” But decades of overfishing in False Bay was forcing the seals to prey on the endangered African penguin, she said.
Sharon Martin, founder of Trail Freedivers, a community group involved in ocean-related initiatives, said octopus fishing gear (buoy, ropes, anchors and traps) was a very real threat to large cetaceans and the experimental permit should never have been granted without a proper impact assessment.
“Octopus fishing in False Bay must be stopped completely until a full and independent assessment study has been done.”
The whale deaths were also bad for tourism, she said.
At the centre of the controversy is commercial fisherman Garry Nel, who was awarded an experimental octopus licence from DAFF 17 years ago (“Call to ban octopus nets,” Echo, June 27). He has come under fire in recent weeks for the way in which he makes his living – octopus fishing.
Mr Nel said the moratorium would have dire consequences for the industry and the 52 local fishermen he employs.
“We can’t afford to lose this industry,” he said.
He said his nets set an international standard for safe and effective octopus fishing practices and the line that had entangled the young humpback whale was a “ghost line” lost during a previous disentanglement operation in 2012.
The line had been dropped by one of the first boats in False Bay using that gear before any whale modifications had been made, he said.
The new gear, he said, could not ghost fish, meaning it could not continue to catch and kill if the trap was lost at sea.
Mr Nel was the first commercial fisherman to voluntarily take the whale disentanglement course offered by the SAWDN five years ago and has been involved in many disentanglement operations.
The Echo tried to speak to two local fishermen who would be affected by the moratorium, but both responded with “no comment”.
Mayoral committee member for spatial planning and environment, Marian Nieuwoudt, said it was vital that DAFF gave existing octopus-fishing permit holders an alternative fishing option to ensure that those employed by the fishery could still earn a living.
The removal of whale carcasses placed a huge financial burden on the City’s coffers, she said. It cost between R50 000 and R150 000 to remove and dispose of one whale carcass, depending on weather conditions and the location of the carcass.
The young humpback whale was towed to shore and taken to a landfill site.