Nestled on either side of Nature’s Valley and Plettenberg Bay are two marine protected areas (MPAs), signifying the high ecological importance of marine biodiversity in the area. At the same time, the region is used extensively for tourism, and recreational fishing is a popular leisure activity. With growing tourism numbers, conflict with coastal biodiversity is bound to happen. The NVT research team runs several important research programmes to enable a better understanding of tourism’s impact on coastal ecosystems. This understanding allows better management to ensure the responsible use and long-term availability of these resources for all. Supporting this, the NVT conservation education team designs and implements high-profile intervention and awareness programmes to inform visitors of the rich biodiversity found on the beaches and how we can all #ShareTheShores. The NVT’s coastal programme currently has two active projects: a shorebird monitoring project and a marine debris project.
Anthropogenic disturbance on shore breeding birds
The coastal regions of South Africa face various threats, ranging from widespread global issues such as climate change to astounding rates of encroachment due to human development. Along with these larger concerns, it is also necessary to examine and address the cumulative impacts of minor, everyday forms of disturbance, such as the effects recreational beach use has on coastal wildlife and habitats. Note that the Garden Route shoreline, being a popular holiday destination given its natural beauty, is continuously subjected to an increase in tourism and resultant developments.
Shorebirds that nest on the ground are notably vulnerable to beach visitors in high-tourism areas. By way of illustration, the White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus) experienced a considerable reduction in numbers (40% to 60% in the Western Cape) over the past three decades, demonstrating an unfortunate worldwide trend of a decline in shorebird populations.
Despite their hefty economic and ecological importance, environmental policies and enforcement often neglect sandy beaches. For this reason, the NVT’s shorebird conservation research aims to use field observations, experiments and monitoring to determine the influence humans (and dogs) have on shorebird survival on our local beaches. The intention is to draft conservation management recommendations to minimise the anthropogenic impact on shorebirds and coastal habitats and to reduce the chances of loss. Given that these recommendations will be based on current research and stem from a sound scientific perspective, those driving our community will be in a better position to make appropriate decisions, with due consideration for both economic development and the need to conserve and protect the environment.
Along our stretch of coastline, the NVT opted to follow a socio-environmental approach to the dire situation shore-breeding birds are facing. To address the apparent lack of education and awareness about shore birds, the NVT made accurate and locally relevant information available to the public. This included large billboards on beaches, leaflets, articles in local papers and a strong, positive media campaign that took the form of a series of “soap operas” (Sands of Change) on the life and times of plovers and oystercatcher on our beaches. Cute cartoon characters called Sandy and Rocky, who are the ambassadors for our campaign, were developed and the public was invited to adopt and name some of the tiny shorebird chicks.
In terms of shorebird research on the beaches, the NVT implemented nesting-area signs, placed at least 30 m away from an active nest, and also conducted many surveys with beach users over the past couple of breeding seasons.
Armed with sound scientific research, the organisation was then in a prime position to influence management strategies. By engaging authorities and all stakeholders, the NVT adjusted the management of beaches by implementing a new colour-coded system. Beach entrances, stretching from the Greater Plettenberg Bay to Nature’s Valley, are now equipped with a large board with colour-coded areas indicating various zonings for use by dogs.
Presently, the results strongly suggest that increased public awareness of nesting areas as well as the reduction of dogs in hotspot breeding areas has increased the breeding success of White-fronted Plovers and African Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus moquini). What should be noted is that natural predation as well as tidal events (e.g. extreme spring tides and flooding events) also play a major role in the success of the birds that breed in the transition between land and sea. Nevertheless, given that the holistic approach followed over the course of this project has already resulted in an increase in breeding success and assisted in ensuring the persistence of the White-fronted Plover and Oystercatchers, it is imperative that this work continues in order to reach a breeding rate that can be sustained over the long term to the benefit of these species.
The impacts of fishing on nearshore linefish stock
The impact of local subsistence and recreational fishing on our marine resources is difficult to quantify. These issues not only have a bearing on overfishing but the detrimental effects fishing tackle discarded on beaches can have on local wildlife.
In South Africa, many recreationally important fish species are considered over-exploited and have collapsed as a result. As early as 2003/2004, an MSc study on nearshore linefishery in Plettenberg Bay conducted by a student attending Rhodes University found that fish stock in the area has declined compared to partially exploited and no-take marine reserves. Suggestions towards a new approach for coastal governance were made, but it is unclear whether these have been applied over the ensuing decade and whether the depleted fish stock has had a chance to recover.
Consequently, the NVT initiated a study in 2014/2015, interviewing fishermen from Nature’s Valley to Robberg (the western extent of Plettenberg Bay). This study assessed fishermen’s attitudes and compliance with regulations as well as anglers’ target species in the area. Catch composition and catch-and-effort data were also recorded. The study was re-initialised in December 2016 and focussed on the two most popular fishing zones, namely Nature’s Valley and Keurboomstrand. The results showed that it takes on average five times longer to catch a fish than it did in 2003. It was also found that fishermen still retain a large percentage (40%) of undersized White Steenbras, and that the number of undersized Blacktail retained by fishermen has increased from under 10% in 2015 to 33% in the current study.
Along with continuing interviews to gather catch-and-effort data from fishermen, educational resource packs have been developed as part of our #ShareTheShores campaign. This waterproof resource bag is handed out to fishermen free of charge and includes current regulations on the 12 most commonly caught species in the area, as well as important information on three small endemic shark species also targeted by fishermen. A SASSI (South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative) pamphlet, a brochure on marine debris and an infographic on what to do with a tagged fish are also included. The effectiveness of the resource packs has been assessed with follow-up surveys. The organisation’s data shows that these packs have improved fishermen’s knowledge of fishing regulations, sustainable harvesting and disposing of fishing tackle properly. In particular, the Covie community expressed a desire in April 2017 to move towards implementing more sustainable fishing practices. As a result, a fishing club evolved with members from a neighbouring historical fishing community. The club is self-sustained and is assisted by NVT and the Plettenberg Bay Angling Association.
Photo credit: Tiaan Botha
Marine debris and impacts on our coastline
The NVT monitors anthropogenic impacts on the coast in terms of marine debris and other litter. The methodology entails documenting the coordinates of both beach visitors and their litter. This allows us to accurately determine who our main beach users are and the proportion of litter each type of user leaves behind.
A previous study indicated that picnickers (44%) and beach walkers (35%) constituted the highest percentage of beach users, with fishermen constituting only 10%. However, the items documented on the beach were predominantly fishing-related (39%). Consequently, the percentage of discarded fishing tackle (not including general waste such as food packaging, cigarette butts, etc.) contributes disproportionately to the marine debris problem in Nature’s Valley. This is valuable data, as it provides a glimpse into a solution to the problem, which presumably stems from a lack of awareness. To combat this lack of knowledge, the NVT has rolled out a fisherman impact study that will focus on educating fishermen on various topics, such as marine debris, fishing regulations, the tagging of fish, etc.
Micro-plastics, along with cigarette butts, are being found on a regular basis on our beaches, and in large quantities. Even though there has been a decrease in the percentage of fishermen’s waste overall on our beaches during the past couple of years, the challenge tends to flare up every now and then. Clearly, new interventions had to be planned to address this problem.
To this end, the NVT created an interactive platform in 2018 covering the marine debris found on the Nature’s Valley beach (Groot River to Salt River) and the Keurbooms beach. Data on debris collected since 2017 has been captured and is now available on this interactive site, depicting concentrations of different types of debris and the location of problem areas. The data also shows patterns that indicate an increase in certain types of litter during peak holiday periods and a decrease when there are fewer beach users. Clearly, there is a need for increased awareness of and education on the threat litter poses to our coastline (especially during peak holiday periods) – an area in which the NVT can, undoubtedly, play a significant role.
The majority of litter on beaches is ocean-derived microplastics. The NVT launched an additional project under the marine debris banner specifically looking at microplastics found on the beaches and inside the gut of birds and fish caught locally in our bay. The data collected from the bird dissections show microplastics present in the intestinal tract, which inadvertently indicates that microplastics are present throughout the food chain. This impacts the natural resource on which communities rely heavily for subsistence. Through its awareness and education programmes on the impact of marine debris and the need for proper disposal of waste, the NVT aims to reduce the amount of plastic that filters into our rivers, oceans and, ultimately, our wildlife. To this end, the NVT co-founded Renew Able Plett (a stakeholder-driven initiative supported by local NPOs, businesses and other groups) that will run positive, incentive-driven campaigns encouraging local businesses to reduce their use of single-use plastics. To date, 55 businesses have phased out at least two of the top five single-use plastic items found on local beaches.
Future priority projects identified as part of the NVT’s coastal programme:
- Human pressure and storm-surge impacts on the dune system
- Assessment and mitigation of poaching and illegal harvesting
- Beach access for disabled persons