Red flags over Nelson Mandela Bay fish farm plans

Experts warn of damage to Bay’s watersports and tourism industries as shark fears mount

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Establishing a fish farm in Algoa Bay has raised red flags over the risk of shark attacks and the damage to important tourism and watersport enterprises after an assessment of the project stated it would probably attract the predators.
The sea-based aquaculture development zone (ADZ) proposed by the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries (Daff) comprising three sites – off Summerstrand, the Port Elizabeth harbour and Coega – has stirred heavy debate as to its pros and cons.
And its proposed Algoa One site 2km off Pollok Beach and adjacent to Bell Buoy and the dive industry’s “house reef” is seen as particularly problematic regarding the shark issue.
According to Daff, the proposed Algoa Bay ADZ will create employment and strengthen the local economy. A consultant estimates almost 1,300 possible jobs could be created if the fish farm is grown to full capacity as envisaged over four years.
However, the warning over shark activity comes in response to a statement by Anchor Research & Monitoring, the company appointed by Daff to assess the project, that sharks will probably be attracted to the fish farm and that their presence may well increase at bathing beaches.
Related to this, according to Anchor’s basic assessment report: “There is a high degree of uncertainty as to the possible changes in the risk of shark bite incidents.
“The only conceivable way to address this is with extensive monitoring of shark movement patterns . . . before and after the stocking of cages.”
The chair of the Algoa Bay branch of the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA, Gary Koekemoer, said the sharks issue was crucial and the suggested way to address it alarming.
“The only and obvious way to avoid risk to people in the water is not to instal the cages in the first place.”
After-the-fact intervention was not the risk-averse approach stipulated for sustainable development in the National Environmental Management Act, he said.
“Waiting to see if a shark attack occurs is not what we envisage the act intends.” Koekemoer said it was also a mistake to assess the shark risk simply in relation to bathing beaches because scuba divers, spearfishers, surfers and open-water swimmers regularly ventured further out.
Besides the real increased chance of shark attacks, perception was key, he said.
“By installing fish cages, irrespective if it is the 12 cages envisaged for year one or the 105 cages intended for year four, [it] will significantly amplify the fear of encountering a shark in the surf and open-sea areas in near proximity to the cages.
“This perception alone, we believe, will negatively impact and threaten the viability of the Ironman competition, the Ocean Series open-water swim events, the Bell Buoy open-water race, surfing competitions and competitions associated with surf lifesaving.
“Were Nelson Mandela Bay to lose those events, the impact on its watersport capital active city brand would be irreparable,” he said.
Dive training and tours were regularly held at the Bell Buoy reef because of the attraction of diving with docile ragged tooth sharks.
But the arrival of white sharks would probably change the dynamic and disrupt this enterprise, just as the arrival of orcas had changed the behaviour of white sharks in False Bay and impacted negatively on the shark cage diving industry there, Koekemoer warned.
He said the shark threat was one of a raft of serious problems with the proposed Algoa Bay fish farm.
“It is our considered opinion, based on scientific and user input, that an aquaculture development zone of the nature proposed by the fisheries department will have a ‘tipping point’ impact on the ecology of the bay and human use of [its] beachfronts, and the sea space of the bay itself.
“As a consequence, the proposed aquaculture development zone will have a severely negative impact on the economy of [Nelson Mandela Bay].
“We have no doubt that the metro’s current initiatives to positively shape the brand of Port Elizabeth as a watersport active capital and ecotourism destination will be adversely impacted if it goes ahead, and we are unequivocally opposed to this project.”
Ironman SA managing director Keith Bowler said he and his team were strongly opposed to the fish farm and had lodged their objection to it.
“It will have a huge negative impact on the Ironman event in Port Elizabeth because of the increased shark activity and the reduced quality of the water that will result.
“We have spoken to people around the world where fish farms are situated and they all describe
describe how shark activity goes through the roof and the beaches die.”
Pro Dive co-owner Louis van Aardt confirmed that the proposed fish farm was a huge concern.
“There has been no contact from the project team to ask for our input and yes, it will definitely affect our reefs and our tourism, without a doubt.
“Bell Buoy in particular is our main dive spot and I spend a lot of time marketing it at overseas dive shows.
“If the fish farm goes ahead potential clients will of course learn about it and I guarantee it will have a negative effect on our operation.”
Port Elizabeth-based Surfing SA president Johnny Bakker said they were also opposed to the fish farm.
“We have three big national tournaments a year in Port Elizabeth and safety is a priority.
“A fish farm would bring pollution and safety concerns around the presence of sharks.”
Mike Zoetmulder, of ZSports, one of the main drivers behind establishing Port Elizabeth as a major watersports hub, echoed Bakker’s concerns.
“Our Bell Buoy swim event is now part of the Open Water World Tour. Sports tourism is growing in Nelson Mandela Bay in leaps and bounds.
“We’re very concerned about the negative effect of the fish farm in terms of sharks that could be attracted and the reduced quality of the water.”
Questions were sent to the consultant and the fisheries department on Tuesday but no response had been received by the time of going to print on Friday.

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