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Beauty and the Beast

Scuba Diving in the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) Marine Protected Area (MPA)

by Grant Whitford

OA MPA Diver 600-400


Beauty: This photo by Olivia Fraser really speaks for itself but here’s the back story.  It’s a Saturday morning and we’re out in False Bay diving at reef within the TMNP MPA. Dive conditions are near perfect and colourful marine life of every description abounds.  The underwater photographers are having a great time trying to get the perfect shot or video of schooling yellowtail.  Other divers are exploring this seldom dived spot, mapping the reef or removing plastic litter, old fishing boat anchor ropes and fishing line caught on the coral (if you look closely you can see that’s what the diver in the photo is doing). Nothing is removed from the reef, there is absolutely no damage done to the reef and we actually leave it in better condition than we found it.

The beast:  What the photo doesn’t show is up to a hundred hooks and lures from the 17 fishing boats catching the very same yellowtail the divers are photographing! That’s because fishing, which is not policed and a virtual free-for-all, is allowed in the vast majority of the MPA. Strangely enough scuba diving is prohibited in large parts of the MPA. What?  Also not shown in the photo is the damage done to the reef by fishing boat anchors (diving boats don’t anchor because we know how harmful it can be) and the trail of litter that leads from the places where fishing boats launch to the places they fish.

So perhaps now you think I’m just anti fishing and those poor fisher folk trying to feed their families. Well actually I’m not. They aren’t the real beasts in my story. The real beasts operate from offices in the southern suburbs and the Waterfront.  I’m referring to SANParks, the Department of the Environment (DEA) and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). But hold on,, those are the guys that are supposed to taking care of our MPA.

The fact is – they’re not.  To understand why not we have to go back almost 20 years to when our MPA’s were declared.

Back then it was “Marine and Coastal Management” (MCM), a branch of the then Department of the Environment and Tourism (DEAT), that imagined scuba diving to be a potentially huge source of revenue.  Because of this, they declared MPAs all around the country in specific areas where scuba diving took place and imposed permit fees on individual divers and dive operators for diving in these newly declared MPAs. Fishing in MPAs was hardly restricted at all because that would have been political suicide.  Highly harmful issues such as sewage and industrial effluent outfalls were side stepped by neatly excluding the outfalls from the MPA boundaries or just ignoring them.  Essentially they created what are known as “paper parks” with no real environmental benefit and extremely limited enforcement of regulations.  Looking back, I can hardly believe how ill conceived the whole thing was and how blatantly recreational scuba diving was targeted.  MCM soon discovered that the revenue source was much smaller than they had anticipated but kept trying to make it work and almost killed off the whole recreational scuba diving industry in the process!

Fortunately, (for them not us) something wonderful happened when the then Minister of DEAT, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, received world-wide acclaim and awards for having created MPAs. The public at large and the bunny hugging organisations issuing the awards and acclaim just didn’t get the paper parks memo.  So positively were the MPAs received that it motivated the current bumper crop of administrators to create even more MPAs (2018) and they are once again receiving high acclaim.  My mind boggles that the South African public are so blissfully unaware of how they are being mislead into believing that marine environmental conservation is being well managed.  I get a little steamed up when divers say how wonderful it is to be diving in an MPA with abundant marine life, when they have no experience of what it was like before the MPA existed. The simple truth is that is it would most likely be exactly the same.  That’s because the beauty of our reefs is mainly due to their own innate resilience and diversity, and nothing to do with being in an MPA.  If MPAs don’t have real physical positive actions associated with them they are meaningless and just distract us from the real issues that put our reefs and marine life in danger.

So what are those issues? I think of them as the Big 5;

1.     Poorly regulated, managed and policed commercial and recreational fisheries.

2.     Sewage: Up to 50 million litres of raw sewage is pumped into the TMNP MPA every day.

3.     Poaching: Abalone and Crayfish poaching are rampant.

4.     Pollution: Plastic litter and fishing line can be found throughout the TMNP MPA.

5.     Whale entrapment; Every year a few whales die from becoming trapped in ropes or nets within the TMNP MPA.

I could go into detail about each of these issues, or list several more but believe me they are bad, horrendously bad.  Even the most casual observer of marine activities in the TMNP MPA would have observed this stuff and they can be easily confirmed by marine professionals working around the Peninsula.


JT Green Point Poo 300-200

JT HB Poo 300-200

The Camps Bay Sewage Outfall

Hout Bay crayfish poachers operating in broad daylight

A Hout Bay perlemoen poacher displays his catch

Litter from harbors and rivers that ends up in the sea

A Cape Fur seal at Partridge Point entangled in fishing line and destined to die a slow painful death

A whale trapped in rope from crayfish traps

The responsibility to manage the MPA, and one would assume to deal with these issues, goes to the Department of the Environment (DEA) who formally delegate it’s management to SANParks. And right there the pawpaw hits the fan: DEA and SANParks weasel out of accepting responsibility by just claiming that it’s the other ones responsibility.  The buck never stops anywhere.  It also becomes the City of Cape Town’s problem, or the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries’ problem.  Lack of resources is also a popular cry, or, my personal favourite, it’s not actually a problem after all – so don’t worry.

Earlier this year (2018) I sat in a meeting between representatives of the local recreational dive industry and SANParks in Tokai.  We had hoped to get some action underway to start to address the Big 5 issues.  Sadly, what we got was Mr Gavin Bell (TMNP manager) telling us that scuba diving in the MPA was not really as environmentally friendly as we thought it was because our outboard motors polluted the air.  He also said that they had many other issues to be concerned about such as dust particles blown in on the wind from as far away as North America, that contain micro-pollutants that settle over the whole area.  I kid you not!  When the park manager equates the infinitesimally minute amount of pollution from North American dust or a wisp of outboard motor smoke with 50 MILLION LITRES of RAW SEWAGE per day,  you just know he doesn’t comprehend what’s going on at all.  This is terribly concerning for our those of us who care deeply about the environment.

SANParks were, however, keen to discuss the permitting of divers and dive operators.  They confirmed my long held belief that they see divers purely as a source of revenue.  Permitting and permit fees are their game.  Just ask the guys from the local film industry. You can’t sneeze in the TMNP without an expensive permit!

And DEA?  Eish, don’t even go there!  If you can find someone who actually knows we have an MPA to answer a phone or an e-mail, you’d be doing brilliantly. And then they would just refer you back to SANParks.

So what’s an ocean loving diver to do?  Well I’ve been involved in Cape Town’s recreational scuba diving industry for almost 30 years and I honestly feel it’s time to take the fight for a real MPA with real environmental protection to the next level.  The authorities are immune to criticism and bad press – so why do it?  The time for writing articles, taking photos and having meetings is over – we need direct corrective action, Sea Shepherd style.  When Paul Watson wanted to stop the killing of whales in the Southern Ocean he didn’t write to the Japanese fishing authorities to try and convince them to stop.  He didn’t write articles for the Japanese media to try and convince the Japanese public that their own people were up to no good.  No, the got his own ship, went down to the southern ocean and got right in the faces of the people actually killing whales.  That got results.  And with results came support and that allowed for more direct action, more ships, proper media coverage and with consistent direct action Sea Shepherd prevented the killing of an estimated 6 500 whales and turned the tide against Japanese whaling in the southern ocean.

To do that here in Cape Town and take on the perpetrators of our Big 5 issues is surely the next step. It’s going to be an epic battle,, who’s with me?



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