/ 8 August 2023

Ten year fishing limit around African penguin colonies gets thumbs-up

African Penguins On Boulders Beach, Simons Town
African penguins on Boulders beach, Simon's Town. File photo

The government’s decision to limit fishing in the waters around South Africa’s six African penguin colonies will give the endangered birds a better chance to recover their dwindling population, said BirdLife South Africa.

On Friday, Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy announced that she will implement fishing limitations for the small pelagic fishery (sardines and anchovies) around Dassen Island, Robben Island, Stony Point, Dyer Island, St Croix Island and Bird Island year-round for 10 years, with a review after six years of implementation and data collection. 

This is to help safeguard the main food source of the imperilled seabirds.The population of African penguins has plummeted to 10 000 breeding pairs and could be extinct by 2035. 

Creecy’s announcement came after she received a report from an expert international review panel on fishing closures and limitations around the key penguin colonies. Competition for food, she said, is “thought to be one among a set of pressures that are contributing to the decline”, with other pressures including ship traffic with their associated noise and vibrations, pollution and degradation of suitable nesting habitats.

“We are very happy that the minister has agreed to these closures and we’re particularly happy about the timeframe, so it’s definitely aligned to the penguin biology,” said Eleanor Weideman, the coastal seabird project manager at BirdLife South Africa. “Ten years is brilliant, year-round is brilliant, because there has been talk before of seasonal closures, and short-term closures, which we would not have been happy about.”

Groundbreaking experiment

In 2008, what was then the department of environmental affairs implemented a pioneering decade-long island closure experiment (Ice), alternatively opening and closing four of the largest breeding colonies — Dassen, Robben, St Croix and Bird islands — to the pelagic fishing sector for a radius of 20km. This was to understand whether fishing affected the species. 

The panel’s report noted that the experiment demonstrated for Dassen and Robben islands’ colonies — those more intensively studied — that excluding fishing around breeding colonies was likely to reduce the rate of population decline to a small extent.

Closures of forage-fish fishing around penguin colonies would probably benefit penguin conservation, but should be part of other conservation measures because closures alone were unlikely to reverse the population declines.

“The Ice was a three-year alternating open and closed period so the islands would be open to fishing for three years and then closed for three years and the problem with that is that penguins will only start breeding when they are three to six years old, so as soon as the cohorts of chicks mature and start breeding, suddenly the island becomes open again to fishing so they just get knocked back down again,” said Weideman. 

She added they were against seasonal closures because penguins breed in most months of the year and have a protracted breeding length. 

BirdLife South Africa said that if the closures are aligned to the penguins’ foraging habitats, the 10-year timeframe would give the birds a better chance of building up their population. The year-round closures are also important for other stages of penguins’ lives such as pre- and post-moult and juveniles. 

Weideman said endemic seabirds specialising on sardines and anchovies including endangered Cape Cormorants and endangered Cape Gannets would benefit from the fishing closures, too.

“Since the anchovy and sardine stock have been decreasing over the past years, so have all their numbers … If we can protect the sardine and anchovy as much as possible, it will have a lot of benefits, not just to seabirds but to other fish as well that feed on anchovy and sardine. They have a key place within the food chain so that’s why they’re so important to protect.”

Interim closures

The minister said the shift to implementing fishing limitations would continue with the current interim closures — in September she declared some areas around the major penguin colonies closed to commercial fishing for anchovies and sardines — while the fishing industry and the conservation sector study the panel’s report.  

Creecy said the fishing restrictions were established after discussions with conservation groups and the small pelagic fishing industry representatives. 

If there is agreement on fishing limitations, these will be implemented as agreed upon. 

But, if no alternate fishing limitation proposals are concluded by the start of the 2024 small pelagic fishing season — from 15 January — the current interim fishing limitations will continue until the end of the 2033 fishing season. 

Creecy said a “stand-out feature” of the process to achieve a decision on fishing limitations, over the past two years, has been the level of participation from the conservation and fishing industry sectors.

Weideman added: “It’s wonderful that the minister has agreed to the closures, but we’re definitely going to have to work with fisheries and the rest of the conservation sector to try to come to some sort of compromise as to the best sort of closures we can possibly get.”

Mike Copeland, the chairperson of the South African Pelagic Industry Fishing Association, said it welcomed Creecy’s decision and the release of the panel’s report “concerning the continuing alarming decline” in African penguin numbers. 

He said the panel was initiated by Creecy in October 2022, after the association’s proposal during the Consultative Advisory Forum proceedings — also initiated by the minister — on the African Penguin.

“We look forward to reading the report and also in the light of the Minister’s decision, to continuing discussions with our conservation colleagues to find a reasonable balance between the impact on the penguin population and the socio-economic impact on fishing communities and the South African economy.”

But Mohammed Riedau De Maine, of the Eastern and Southern Cape Pelagic Association, expressed concern about the closures. “We care very much about the penguins, but the fear is that it’s not going to be a win-win and that the fishing industry will pull the short end of the straw. We want fairness to prevail.” 

He said that under the current closures, 73% of the best fishing area around St Croix Island had been closed, but during the review process, an agreement was reached last week that 40% of the area around St Croix would be closed. 

“I must make sure we get that 40% agreement in place … because I’m very worried the NGOs are now going to sit back and do nothing to ensure the agreement is in place by month-end or the end of the year to ensure the minister keeps the 73% in place,” said De Maine. 

“What do I say now to the fisherman, employees, the workers and everyone else involved in this process? I know the minister wants this process to be fair and legitimate … but if the NGOs are not actually going to come to the party … this whole story is going to end up in litigation.”

The Endangered Wildlife Trust thanked Creecy for her commitment to the process and for setting up the independent panel.

“We look forward to engaging with the fishing industry and our conservation colleagues regarding the extent of these closures. We also applaud that these closures are implemented for 10 years, a timeframe suitable for penguin life history.”