Picture: Conservation Action Trust

Another dead 12-metre Bryde’s whale was found in False Bay near Cape Town last week after becoming entangled in octopus trap ropes. The traps have been in use by a single company since 1998, supposedly under a supposedly "exploratory permit"

Members of the public spotted the entangled whale – a sub adult male roughly ten years old - about two kilometres offshore from Miller’s Point, a popular boat-launching site within Table Mountain National Park’s Marine Protected Area.

A team from City of Cape Town on an inflatable boat cut the dead whale free of the ropes and towed the six-ton carcass to the slipway for removal by truck to Visserhoek landfill site north of Melkbos, where it was buried.

Witnesses on the slipway spoke of how the whale’s body had been deeply lacerated, showing signs of painful and futile attempts to free itself from nylon ropes that are around five centimetres thick. The whale’s tongue had become distended and bloated.

The dead Bryde’s whale (pronounced “Brooders”) is the sixth whale in False Bay that has died from drowning in octopus fishing trap ropes in the past four years, said a City of Cape Town official who works in coastal management who requested to remain anonymous.

"At least eight whales have become entangled, and six have died," the city official explained. "But potentially both those numbers are underestimated, as we don’t certainly know of all the cases."

A few days earlier, on Saturday 8th June, volunteers freed a young humpback whale from octopus trap ropes, also near Miller’s Point.

"We found a Humpback whale calf entangled in rope around its body and fins and anchored to the sea bed," said Craig Lambinon from SAWDN.

"A larger whale was present which we suspect to be a family member of the calf."

The death of the Bryde’s whale and entanglement of the humpback comes at the start of the Cape’s whale season, when more and more whales are seen in Cape waters during winter and spring. Cities and towns like Cape Town, Hermanus and Plettenberg Bay offer both boat-based and land-based whale watching. Most commonly-sighted species include Southern Right, Humpback and Bryde’s whales.

Only one company has operated the octopus fishing traps since 1998 under a so-called “exploratory permit”, granted by Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The city official explained that the purpose of the exploratory permit is to establish through scientific study whether the octopus fishing is sustainable.

"But to our knowledge, no scientific analysis has ever been conducted and the company continues to operate, catching thousands of octopus without a sustainability assessment. And whales continue to die. It’s a failed experiment, and the fishery needs to be shut down as soon as possible."

According to the permit conditions, the company is allowed to operate across multiple sites in False Bay, laying several hundred octopus traps at the bottom of the ocean on lines that can extend between five and 20 kilometres.

Picture: Conservation Action Trust

The so-called “pots” – or traps – lie on the ocean floor, and are connected via heavy chains and leaded ropes. These can entangle whales, holding the animals down below the surface, eventually drowning them.

Since 1998 the company has removed up to 50 tons of octopus per year in False Bay. The traps were originally considered “environmentally friendly”, because by-catch was considered acceptably low. But for several years the entanglement and deaths of whales have raised concerns about the ethical and economic validity of the industry.

Photographer and film maker Craig Foster was present on the Miller’s Point slipway when the dead whale was brought ashore. For ten years he has dived almost every day in False Bay, documenting marine life as part of the Sea Change Project, a non-profit organisation that has partnered with marine biology experts from the University of Cape Town.

“Why is this small company allowed to get away with this? It employs only a few people. False Bay is one of South Africa’s biodiversity hubs, and no-one knows what impact the octopus fishing industry is having on all other marine species.”

Picture: Conservation Action Trust

"It’s illegal for the public to approach a whale within 300 metres, and risk a fine of imprisonment or several hundred thousand rand," said Foster. 

"Yet a fishing company is ultimately responsible for killing whales, and receives no fine or suspension? It makes no sense at all."

The financial costs of disentangling and freeing trapped whales, and disposing of dead whales, are significant, yet the company is not liable.

"It costs money, time and labour effort to disentangle the whale, tow it ashore, truck it to a landfill site, and bury it," explained the city official.

Picture: Conservation Action Trust

"The company doesn’t pay this bill, the city and ratepayers do. Citizens are effectively subsidising the killing of whales while the company is allowed to fish for thousands of octopus in False Bay at great environmental, economic and ethical costs."

"It’s not as if this company is employing hundreds of local people, or supplying food to local markets. All the octopus gets put on ice and exported to Asian countries. A small fishing company is benefiting while Cape Town’s international image as a tourism destination gets seriously tarnished by the killing of whales."

Conservation Action Trust