Port Elizabeth - The South African government took decisive steps on Friday to temporarily stop the practice of octopus fishing after a spate of whale entanglements around the country's ecologically sensitive coastline led to mounting public concern.
Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy announced the suspension of exploratory octopus fishing with immediate effect after several whales got entangled, with at least two recorded deaths around the Cape Town shoreline.
"Our decision is taken following widespread public concern regarding recent whale entanglements in the False Bay area which has resulted in the untimely and cruel death of these magnificent creatures," Creecy said in a statement.
Her department said the suspension would remain in place until scientists completed an investigation into the causes of the entanglements.
South Africa's near 3,000 kilometre coastline is a rich ecosystem, famed for its diversity and attractions, including great white sharks, seal and penguin colonies, and whales, the latter of which is a major tourist attraction.
The exploratory fishing for octopus was established in 2014 in False Bay, Saldanha Bay and Mossel Bay in a bid to develop economic hubs and create jobs in coastal areas. The department said meaningful scientific data had been collected between 2014 and 2018 and would continue until 2021 in a bid to collect solid statistics.
But the recent whale entanglements have led to a public outcry. The City of Cape Town on Thursday joined the chorus of calls for a moratorium on octopus fishing. The City said time that three whales had become entangled in nets and two had died as a result of octopus fishing.
The Environment, Forestry and Fisheries department said: "Following today’s [Friday's] meeting, operators will commence removing the gear from False Bay, focusing initially on those areas identified as most sensitive and with the highest number of interactions."
Late on Wednesday evening, City officials from the Environmental Management Department’s Coastal Management Branch were alerted that a young humpback whale carcass was floating about 500m off Sunny Cove, in False Bay. The next day a team retrieved the carcass before it stranded on one of the city’s beaches.
"On arrival, the officials were able to determine that the humpback was entangled in an octopus fishery line and had drowned," the City said.
The carcass was cut free and towed to the Miller’s Point slipway for removal to a landfill site by the City’s Solid Waste Department.
According to the City of Cape Town, this was the third entanglement and second fatality of whales, reportedly as a result of the octopus fishery in the last two weeks.
"All of these entanglements have occurred within the designated Marine Protected Area surrounding our shores," a City statement read.
Separately, the South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN) have responded to a total of six whale entanglements along the South African coastline for the year.
National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) spokesperson Craig Lambinon said all six disentanglements were successful while the organisation was aware that the City of Cape Town had dealt with a further two "suspected" entanglements.
Lambinon said that SAWDN was not overly concerned but urged members of the public to contact the NSRI if a whale was spotted in distress or entangled.
Lambinon said it wasn't wholly certain that octopus lines were responsible for the whale death near Miller's Point as the mammal may already have been deceased and drifted into the octopus fishing lines, because there was only half a wrap around the whale.
"It's not our place to say because we don't do those investigations, we are the rescue people. But that kind of thing should be investigated by the authorities," said Lambinon.
He added that in addition to entanglements, there were a number of other incidents involving whales, including nine ship strikes around the country for the year.
"It's quite normal for any international water country," he said.