South Africa imposes moratorium on octopus fishing

Published on
July 3, 2019

South Africa has temporarily suspended licensed exploratory fishing for octopus in the False Bay area, one of the locations earlier selected by the country's Department of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries (DEFF) for data collection on the potential of commercial octopus fishing to create jobs and support the country’s economic development.

The suspension announced by Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy on 28 July was triggered by the entanglement and subsequent death of a young whale that has been attributed to the use of vertical lines in the octopus fishing.

Creecy said the decision to declare a brief moratorium on licensed exploratory octopus fishing was arrived at “following widespread public concern regarding recent whale entanglements in the False Bay area, which has resulted in the untimely and cruel death of [one of] these magnificent creatures.”

“The department has engaged with operators and agreed that the suspension will remain until such time as scientists can investigate the matter further and explore possible mitigation measures to reduce entanglements,” the statement said.

Last week, officials from Cape Town City Environment Management Department had reported the death of a young humpback whale after a carcass was found floating about 500 meters off Sunny Cove, in the False Bay area, with initial investigation indicating it died after it was entangled in an octopus fishery line.

“This is the third entanglement and second fatality of whales as a result of the octopus fishery in the last two weeks and all of these entanglements have occurred within the designated marine protected area surrounding our shores,” Marian Nieuwoudt, a member of the Cape Town City Mayoral Committee for Spatial Planning and Environment, said in a statement.

The Department of Environment and Fisheries has issued permits for exploratory octopus fishing for the last 17 years but it has yielded little data and information because of “difficulties caused by gear loss and damage from rough seas, vandalism and theft, access to suitable vessels and equipment, and the rigidity of the experimental framework.”  

An initial 16 fishing areas were designated for the exploratory octopus fishing where licensed participants were allowed to set and retrieve an average of three to five lines per day, “with 50-100 Ivy Blue pots per line, resulting in a potential maximum of 500 pots being set per day.”

“With three trigger traps on a cradle and each line carrying 40 cradles, the total number of pots set per fishing day is up to 600 if using the Australian trigger traps,” according to the guidelines by DAFF.

However, since 2013, the government has removed restrictions on pot type “so that participants may use whichever pot design is most appropriate to their own operations” that saw catches increase from 2,000 kilograms at the time to 14,000 kilograms in 2015.

“The gradual increase in octopus catches reflects the efficiency of fishing gear, a better understanding of the fishing environment and improvement of fishing skills,” DEFF said.

But last week, local and regional officials criticized the lack of action to prevent further conflict between fishermen and whales. 

“The National Department should, after nearly two decades, be able to fully comprehend the impact and risks associated with the exploratory fishing,” they said. “Clearly, there is an urgent need to design fishing gear that would not lead to the drowning of whales.”

Currently, whales can encounter the gear and be scared by the contact, Nieuwoudt said.

“They then roll over and get entangled, and eventually drown because the fishing gear is too heavy for them to reach the surface,” Nieuwoudt said.

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