The Cape Gannet colony on Bird Island, Lambert's Bay. Picture: John Yeld

Cape Town - The “which came first – the chicken or the egg?” – debate may be unresolved, but there’s no confusion about which of the current inhabitants of the West Coast fishing town of Lambert’s Bay arrived first: the birds beat the people, if only by one year.

This was revealed during a function on Thursday to mark 100 years of the birds’ occupation of the aptly named Bird Island in the town’s fishing harbour.

The island, which has been joined to the mainland by a causeway, is home to about 8 000 breeding pairs of Cape Gannets.

The island is now a nature reserve managed by CapeNature, and the birds have become one of the region’s major tourist attractions.

One of the speakers at the function was Dr Tony Williams, a retired CapeNature scientist who specialised in seabirds and who first worked at the island in 1973.

He pointed out that Bird Island had originally been occupied by penguins that had over many years deposited a thick layer of guano at least two metres thick in places.

Removing this guano for fertiliser in the late 19th and early 20th century made the island more attractive to the gannets, and the presence of the first couple of pairs was recorded in 1912.

It was one year later, in 1913, that the first plots in the town were laid out and sold, and the first school – serving just five families – opened in 1915, Williams said.

Nothing more about the gannets was recorded until 1956 when there were 5 000 breeding pairs.

Now the island is one of just three breeding colonies of gannets in South Africa, one of six in the world – the other three are in Namibia – and one of only two colonies where these birds are thriving, Williams said.

To meet the growing bird tourism demand, CapeNature opened a substantial bird observation hide at a cost of R500 000 in 1998, and later developed a R3-million information centre.

It was “very important” to look after the gannets, Williams said. “They’ve become a major tourist attraction. In 2008, an economics thesis found that they were worth R5 million a year to the town through tourist spending and job creation.”

Cederberg municipality mayor Jonas White said while there were no gold or diamond mines in their area, they were blessed with natural features like Bird Island. In future, the island would get a share of the budget. - Cape Argus