On the KZN south coast, a dearth of fish

On the KZN south coast, a dearth of fish

Is this the way the world whimpers now? I blinked between seaside trips and something changed drastically. A whole lot just disappeared. The food part.

Only the diaphanous ghost crabs have remained, as insubstantial and impermanent as they appear.

On this part of the Hibiscus Coast, rather hopefully called Salmon Bay, not much stirs on the sea side. I’m here for a fortnight, swapping the so-called big smoke for the big briny.

Further towards the North Sand Bluff lighthouse, wild surf pounds a stand of cruel rocks so that the water convulses violently in a dangerous looking, deep gully. The earth is stunned for a second and a half till the next wave of surf heaves itself again over the treacherous rocks, with dramatic spray. When I peer over at the rocks, too deathly to visit in a wetsuit or a boat, with water smashing and lashing, the rocks seem, as far as I can see with my contact lenses, to have better, fuller shell life on them than I see generally. I imagine fish brilling, whirling and feeding there in all that deep, dark energy. But I need a pair of binoculars, to be sure.

Elsewhere the surfline is bland, seemingly sleeping or dead. I find it odd to look into so many rock pools and find them devoid of any familiar life, neither vegetal nor animal.

Sometimes a ski boat traverses the sea view. How often have I not, in the late afternoon or early morning bought fresh fish straight from a boat or catamaran that’s pushed up on a holiday beach among a small crowd of people who’ve come for the catch. Many years ago, my sister and I would carry the just-purchased fish back on one of our surfboards to our shack at Fish River Mouth.

Often the beach locations were further south or further north, even fairly nearby. Here we’re on the border of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu or “KZN” as some of the locals say. There’s no fish to be had outside of restaurants and there it is hake and calamari that aren’t really from this shore. 

I might have eaten one of the last galjoens, at Witsand at the Breede River, before selling them was forbidden, though people may still catch two per person. We bought ours from a fisherman with a barrow. It was the nicest fish we have, I thought, hastening to a lunch in Cape Town on my return, to eat the old Metropole Hotel’s remaining frozen stash of galjoen and, indeed, because I was late, ordering and eating the very last galjoen. 

In the little town of Port Edward I make enquiries about buying any fresh fish or anyone selling catch. I’m told I should go further up the coast, to Margate, to “the only fish shop” in this area. It’s Tightline and they have a branch just a bit further on, at Shelly Beach, as well.

Every day at different times and presumably just-right tides, sometimes twice, Ant goes down the lane, past the house, in his blue shorts. I haven’t known his name before now, Ant Nel, but he was pointed out to me on the rocks, among the other rock anglers, as a fisherman “who knows what he’s doing”. 

One day he brings a fish back with him, presumably for his family to eat, but only that once. And it’s not the day I run out into the road to talk to him on his way home, which seems to be about four houses up the road, “that one with the flat green flat roof”. From there he can see a good slice of tides and weather, I reckon. I notice he has attached to his line a faded, flaccid but wriggly rubber lure.

We talk for some time under the hot, coastal sun, on the puddled road that runs past the place where I’m staying. Ant has retired from teaching at the local schools but I see online that he teaches youngsters to fish responsibly now. Ant, unlike many of the other littoral anglers, does catch fish regularly and he almost always releases them, after sometimes taking a pic. He shows me a series of very big silver piscine trophies on his phone, mostly taken by him.

He came here 37 years ago, teaching here and in Scottsville, and has been active on the shoreline for all that time. 

“It’s absolutely fished out and it’s no good blaming the Chinese. They fish pelagic fish. These are shore fish we’re talking about. Gone. Anglers have overfished the waters, single fishermen like me with a rod. But they catch and do not return. The kobs are under threat. These guys catch and catch for no good reason and, over time, it’s left us with no fish.”

I am thinking that it’s a bit like hunting, say lion. Not too many people want to eat any and feed the family with the meat. They seem to want to kill them for the fun and the challenge of it, though.

Ant’s fish was a kob too. It’s what he enjoys catching. And releasing after the pictures. In truth he is allowed to take one out per day but can’t eat so many and, of course, may not sell them, even if he wanted to. He mentions that the commercial ski boats who can sell them may take five per species per day. Ant Nel is a very well respected fishing championships winner on this southern part of the KZN coast. I also hear the same sort of story from fishermen who have been at Pennington further up this coast. “Fished out”. 

I’m presuming the tourism for the area that primarily and simply promises great fishing to anglers is part of that problem. That’s just what it seems to me. 

We make the trip to Margate, me thinking that travelling 31 kilometers is a bit odd for a fresh fish for supper when we’re at the sea anyway. Tightline Fisheries are essentially a distribution company in Uvongo that supplies hotels, restaurants, hospitals etc with frozen hake, calamari, prawns, crayfish, smoked salmon, oysters etc. But they also have a smallish fresh fish section on ice, behind glass at this shop. The people running the place are wonderful, happily helpful sorts and it is suddenly fun being here. One of the guys behind the display is Patrick Shumane and he’s been fileting and working with fish for eight years and is excellent with the knife.

Patrick Shumane deftly fileting. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Evidently all the fish here are “ski boat or line-caught by registered commercial fishermen”. 

I look at the remarkably fresh fish and recognise some names, not others, so ask what would be a good buy. A stumpnose is selected and Patrick goes to work on it professionally. It’s not exactly cheap but then I guess there’s not much of a market, it seems, for fresh fish. And there’s not much fish to come by, anyway.

Online, I try to identify some of the fish I saw, labelled, on the Tightline ice. 

Some of our stumpnose is in the pan being butter-fried, skin-on, and the rest will become fish cakes tomorrow. Fat oven chips are being prepared. It’ll be a simple supper, making the most of a gloriously fresh fish.

Meanwhile I see on the SASSI site that we are openly pan-frying contraband. I am a criminal myself, for buying the stumpnose. Next to the identifying pictures of every kind of stumpnose is a single red dot. Stumpnose may not be sold or bought. 

I check on some of the other fish I saw on ice. Only half of them are on the green list. I phone the Tightline owners. I may not speak to them or get their cell numbers, I hear from Hailey the receptionist. They will call back as she is leaving an urgent message. Make that many messages. The next week I may still not do so and no one calls back. I send emails explaining that I bought fish at their outlet and that I’d like to discuss it and get their opinion before I write about it. I send them to the email address on the website and on the back of the Tightline Fabulous Fish Recipes booklet that the lovely Margate sales lady gave me when I paid for the fish. After over a fortnight I am writing the story, still puzzled.

A week later Paul Loomes told me that we had “probably been given an Englishman. There is often confusion between the two”.

He added: “Sometimes the Englishman has more of a stump-like nose. And the Englishman is not a red-dot fish.” I’ve since found it, with its red stripes, on the orange list.

Ant’s fish are generally kob (kabeljou), most of which are red-listers, but he follows the rules strictly.

I have to admit that the illicitly gained Stumpnose is deliciously fleshed, with a kind of creaminess under the skin. No wonder it’s so popular that it’s become endangered.

Marina Beach, south of Margate, near Southbroom and Ramsgate, has a quaint sandy beachfront cafe, known for its fish and chips and the cats that loll about there. We went along for both, I hoping for fresh fish. I should have known it would be frozen hake, calamari and the rest from Tightline Fisheries or similar, no matter how delightfully holidayish the experience.  

The concept of over-fishing by over-angling is something new to me. However, I think of the beaches so full of night anglers up on the north KwaZulu coast, where you need to walk near the rods to dodge the lines, if you go down to walk on the beach at night. I had marvelled at how many fishermen there were, dozens. Many could have been subsistence fishers. An ex-fisher friend tells me that if I write about this it’s opening “a can of worms”, which I consider for a while as the title of the piece. I abandon it since it is not an investigative exercise, just about observations. 

Here, where the kaboom sound of the waves washes the city from my psyche and where the skies are like mother-of-pearl in the early mornings and evenings, it is sad to see so much loss of shore life. And where have the rockpools of sea anemones gone? I think I saw two anemones in two weeks. 

The local rock oysters are not edible enough to warrant removal so there are great clusters by contrast. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

There are rock oysters galore though, because they’re not edible enough to warrant removal. There were no mussels, although Ant said there are still some deep in the water. On the day I delightedly saw seaweed on a beach walk, a friend told me it couldn’t be, that it was an old army T-shirt that had got shredded in the rocks. Because there was so little else that was lively, except the anglers on the rocks and the ghost crabs. DM/TGIFood


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Luke Simpson says:

    Lovely, sad article.

  • alan Beadle says:

    How sad – the South Coast used to be a highlight for us Vaalies!

  • Edward Freer says:

    This is a result of the exclusion of KZN Wildlife (the old Parks board) from looking after the coast. It has now become a National responsibility.

    • Jeremy Williams says:

      To put it bluntly, enforcement stopped when it became a National responsibility. Time after time at meetings discussing KZN MPAs a few years ago fishermen and spearfishermen asked “Will there be efficient enforcement?” We have the answer now – there is no longer any enforcement in KZN. Read about Operation Phakisa on the Government EFF website and laugh (or cry!)

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    South africa’s fishing regulations are ‘back to front’. Here one can only take a catch that is ABOVE a certain size. So most of the mature breeding stock get taken – EG a kob of 60 cm or greater. A consequence is that the stocks dont replenish as we reduce the ‘breeders’. We should change it around – so that one can only take fish BELOW a certain size – with huge fines if you are found with one out of limits.

  • Peter Mansfield says:

    Very sad, and I am sure that over-fishing is a big part of the problem. However, do not forget the role of the sugar industry in destroying through silting almost every river mouth lagoon on the KZN coast. These lagoons used to be the breeding ground for many species. There is no point in trying to rehabilitate them until the sugar industry is gone. as I am sure it will be one day. Then nature will slowly restore, but will there be any fish left to breed? Peter

  • Brett Bard says:

    In light of this tragedy I wonder if it ever occurs to fishermen to cease their cruel and species depleting assault on sea creatures in the face of what is clearly a greater ecological disaster, or that tormenting a rare, free ranging sentient being by dragging it through salty water by its hook pierced mouth, for fun, only adds insult to injury.

    Chief Seattle’s words of caution two centuries ago has become a chilling prophesy: ‘Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realise that we can not eat money.’

  • Paul Fleischack says:

    Thank you for a great article and for highlighting this collapse in this inshore coastal fishery.
    Tight lines version of confusing a soldier with a stump nose: yeah right!!
    We regularly travel on the N2 between south coast and Durban. It is not uncommon to see about 200 crayfish held out for sale in the Hibberdene area. No law enforcement evident so predicting the final disastrous outcome is a no-brainer.

  • William Kelly says:

    As Attenborough so succinctly put it, a relatively small fish sanctuary is all that is needed to re-populate wild stock species. As a fresh fish farmer myself, I don’t see it as competition – I farm fish so that my children and their friends will one day be able to experience what I did in catching my own fish in the ocean.

  • Johan Buys says:

    On a more positive note, there are places further toward Cape Town where the fishing has recovered very well (quantity and variety). I should rather not say where, it seems. We only fish off the boat – there is a reason why shore angling is called “hengel” and off the boat is called “visvang”.

  • Rod Stewart says:

    Sad indeed. Holidays on the South Coast from the late 60s until the mid 80s are some of my fondest memories. Morning walks to Orange Rocks and Pothole near St Mike’s always involved anticipation of seeing what had been caught – in addition to the pretty much guaranteed Shad haul. Today these prime rock fishing spots are mostly deserted, almost certainly because the returns are so poor.

    Whilst I accept that overfishing is a contributory factor, I think that this is only part of the picture. The reader comment about the sugar industry and silting of estuaries is almost certainly valid, but I wonder whether something more fundamental isn’t at play.

    The writer mentioned the sterile rock pools: when I returned to St Mikes with my three young daughters around 2010, I looked forward to showing them the shorelife that I had experienced as a young boy. Alas. That lack of life surely can’t have anything to do with overfishing. My gut feeling is that water quality issues are driving the demise of shorelife and the depletion of fish stocks along the coast. I may be wrong, but I would like to hear from someone better qualified as to what might be the the reason.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    It is my understanding that the big culprit of our seas being denuded lies at the governments feet for selling permits for trawling by people other than South Africans. Years ago I reported a Taiwanese trawler off our coast to SANParks. The fishermen were putting out kilometers of nets every day across our veiwshed between Plett and Kysna (a reserve by the way). I was informed that that trawler had a government permit. Through my scope I could see the fish being pulled up by six men. Daily. Monthly. Yearly ! Ironically, SANParks spends a lot if time fining local fisherfolk without permits, but who have fed their families for generations from the local coastline as their only food security. It’s not right.

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