When the minister of environmental affairs says we should understand the importance of the ocean and how we can use its resources to drive economic growth, it is an opinion that even the most cynical must applaud.

Evidently, lower down the bureaucratic ladder, other ideas clearly lurk. With such little fanfare that it seemed suspicious, the Department of Environmental Affairs recently announced its intention to open a marine reserve to anglers and fishing, and not just any marine reserve, but the one that borders the world famous Tsitsikamma National Park (TNP).

To allow fishing by weekend anglers, rich holidaymakers with deep freezes, and anyone who can bait a hook seems at best bureaucratic schizophrenia.

How else to explain how the same department once described the TNP as “A mosaic of ecosystems, it encompasses the world renowned Tsitsikamma and Wilderness sections, the Knysna Lake section, a variety of mountain catchment, Southern Cape indigenous forest and associated fynbos areas. These areas resemble a montage of landscapes and seascapes.” It is a lyrical and accurate description of paradise, minus Adam and Eve. So what changed?

The call for public comment on the draft regulations was on November 19 last year. Six days later the official web page of the department carried the same message, and by the way, coined a remarkable new word “re-zonation” to add to the civil service lexicon. Members of the public, all of whom, of course, regularly read the Government Gazette, were told they had 60 days to comment.

Was it coincidence that the gazette was published on the eve of department luminaries gearing up for their free trip to Paris for the UN’s mother of all conferences on climate change? Were the department’s top management perhaps concentrating on saving the planet rather than its fish inhabitants? Surely not.

When the decision was made, the department’s media person wrote that “The decision follows a 20-year-old journey initiated by Tsitsikamma anglers who requested fishing rights in the marine protection area, citing cultural, historical and subsistence reasons.”

Careful not to appear to pre-empt the “public consultation process”, the writer claimed the decision had been taken after meetings with “various stakeholders”. This “engagement” was done “to reassess the basis of marine resource use” and to “provide benefits for society, and to ensure that such benefits are protected for future generations”.

“The trade-offs between the flow of benefits and the protection of the resources that provide (them) are complex and subject to continuous change as human needs evolve and as new knowledge accumulates. Government therefore has to be prepared to continuously reassess these trade-offs in consultation with its various partners.” However, in the words of a local conservationist: “Allowing fishing in a marine reserve defeats the purpose, and opens the door to cheating and corruption.”

Breeding ground

Another noted that the national park was the oldest marine protected area in southern Africa and the world, pointing out that it had “protected healthy intertidal and sub-tidal ecosystems and associated populations of reef fish and invertebrates.”

“These fish and invertebrates are able to breed and the eggs and larvae drift out of the protected area and settle in adjacent areas,” the conservationist added.

Was an environmental department of government unaware of the reserve’s function in the ecosystem? What gave the lie to department protestations of community consultation was the rapid formation of a Friends of Tsitsikamma Association. Its members were irate, and appealed to the courts to have the decision rescinded.

This group had no anglers or people living on fish for their survival, nor were any of its member’s council officials in that august body, the Koukamma Municipality, or the high-sounding and politically correct Tsitsikamma Angling Forum, both of which the department quoted as being in favour of the move.

They believed that opening the reserve to anglers with rods, and those with only hand lines and multiple hooks, was not an experiment, a temporary arrangement to see how it went, but more like a decision already made. They noted that the fig leaf of rules and regulations proposed would need their own bureaucracy (none of which was costed in the Government Gazette). Frankly, the whole thing looked decidedly… fishy.

We can all thank heavens that our independent judiciary thought along similar lines. It found in favour of the petitioners and stung the department for the costs. Conservationists can only pray that another attempt will not be made to wreck a national treasure.

It is not impossible. Maybe the next move by our official guardians of the environment will be to try to open the Kruger National Park to hunting.