Penguins shot at by Eastern Cape fishermen
By Vivien Horler
Eastern Cape squid fishermen have been using shotguns to shoot at some of the 20 000 African penguins released from Cape Recife near Port Elizabeth in the past few weeks.
The penguins were captured on Robben and Dassen Islands and trucked to Port Elizabeth in an attempt to keep them from being oiled by fuel spilled from the wrecked ore carrier Treasure which sank in the northern part of Table Bay on June 23.
This shocking development has been confirmed to an Eastern Cape journalist by two separate sources.
Ornithologist Dr Tony Williams of the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board, who is deeply involved in the penguin rescue and rehabilitation effort, has said that the board is also aware of the reports.
Staff of the Marine and Coastal Management branch of the Department of Environmental Affairs in Port Elizabeth said on Thursday that the reports had not been confirmed and there was no evidence of the shooting yet, but they were planning to comb local beaches to see whether any birds with gunshot wounds wash up.
The fishermen were apparently concerned that the penguins would scare away the squid.
But sources said the squid fishing had been "very good" this year and there was no reason for the fishermen to fear competition.
Fishermen on at least two of a group of about five squid fishing boats which were anchored off Sardinia Bay, just west of Cape Recife, reportedly fired their shotguns at a large group of penguins swimming directly towards them.
The guns are normally used to keep seals away from their catch.
The fishermen reportedly shot at the penguins for about 45 minutes and then spoke to each other on the radio before someone suddenly realised that the birds were part of the Treasure release programme.
The shooting then stopped.
The name, licence number and make of one of the two vessels involved is apparently known, but has been withheld until further evidence is available.
Williams said they did not have any information about how many of the penguins had been shot, and that as far as he was aware this was the first time penguins had been targeted by fishermen.
"I've only heard about it in relation to this release of birds," he said.
"It's all hearsay and bloody difficult to prove."
Although penguins might eat squid, the birds were really just passing through the area and would not be having any significant impact on the squid resource, Williams said.
"And anyway, these people (the fishermen) are fishing on a breeding aggregation of chokka (squid), so I don't have much sympathy for them."
Williams said they had not been informed officially about the shooting.
"The kind of guys who are involved are not going to take kindly to the people who spilled the beans."
It was "obviously difficult" for Western Cape nature conservation officials to respond.
"We're not in a good position to intervene, and even Eastern Cape Nature Conservation can't do anything about it.
"It really is a matter for Marine and Coastal Management (of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism) - they control the taking of weapons to sea," Williams said.