Marine scientists have slammed the department of environment's proposal to allow limited fishing in the Tsitsikamma's marine reserve and say it is like opening up the Kruger National Park for rhino hunting.
They say the proposal is "irresponsible and illegal", and that even the lightest fishing would damage linefish stocks, many of which have been fished to the point of collapse.
It would also threaten linefishing outside the park, as linefish stocks are replenished by juveniles from the "no-take" reserve. An economic study has put the value of the Tsitsikamma marine reserve, as an exporter of fish larvae and juveniles, at R33-million a year.
The scientists say the move is a "political ploy". Scientists from the Department of Environment's marine and coastal management (MCM) and from SANParks opposed the move but were "prohibited from speaking out publicly".
The statement was signed by Warwick Sauer, Peter Britz and Tom Hecht, all professors in the department of ichthyology and fisheries science at Rhodes University, and by Paul Cowley of the SA Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity.
A WWF study had shown there would be a gain of R34-million by increasing the park's protection, and a loss of welfare of R31-million by allowing fishing.
"This is diabolical. It would destroy the marine park in five years. We've sent letters to the minister (Marthinus van Schalkwyk) but he ducks the issue. It would destroy 40 years of research and conservation, and in five years there would be no fish to catch," Sauer said.
The letter said South Africa had protected 20 percent of its marine area from fishing, but poor governance by MCM was threatening the ecological integrity of some of these reserves as well as their socio-economic benefits.
Allowing fishing in Tsitsikamma National Park could not be justified ecologically, legally, economically or socially.
Many of the linefish were slow-growing and, if caught, would not be replaced for decades. Fishing was a threat to the marine ecosystem, and estimates are that between 20 percent and 50 percent of fish caught by anglers were illegal.
Environment affairs spokesperson Blessing Manale said Van Schalkwyk still had to make a final decision.
He said the department had been given scientific advice, which was "only on the ecological importance" of the area. Opening up experimental fishing in the park would enable the department to assess social aspects.
The department wanted to "integrate" the interests of different users of the coast to find "a middle road". This had been done successfully by Table Mountain National Park.
Manale questioned how outside scientists would know what went on in MCM, and said the recommendation to Van Schalkwyk had been made after all officials, including researchers, had reached an agreement.