The Degradation of South Africa’s Most Illustrious Fishing Harbour. Can it be saved?
Written and Photographed by Ben Block
A narrow, winding road skirts along the Atlantic Ocean. To the west, the Twelve Apostles Mountain Range looms above and casts imposing shadows over the white sand beaches of Camp’s Bay.
Bicycles, buses, Porsches and trucks crowd the narrow road. Most head northwest to Cape Town and the surrounding townships while others descend on Camp’s Bay for elegant dining. Some follow the Apostles’ shadows south to Hout Bay.
The road cuts around a wide curve and begins to descend from its perch high above the rumbling Atlantic. To the west, a deep valley cuts between the road and the Apostles as the ancient mountains continue their march south to Cape Point. To the east, the ridgeline stays steady, ascending as the road sinks to Hout Bay. The mountains fade into the background and peripherals and form a crescent around the fishing community. In the distance, the Bay’s chilly waters beckon.
Shops soon line both sides of the streets. Signs for surfing equipment, cafés and grocery shops call for customers. Tucked into the mountainsides to the east and west are shanty towns and mansions alike.
It’s Saturday, and the docks are alive with tourists and locals. Mariner’s Wharf, a shop and restaurant, bustles. Families and couples occupy every picnic table as they sample fried calamari, greasy chips and baked Snoek. The smells and sounds have attracted the dozens of seagulls that dance above. Some children have made a game of holding a chip high in the air and waiting for a gull to dive and snatch it away.
Behind Mariner’s Wharf two long, concrete jetties jut into the bay. The docked fishing vessels buzz with manual labour; saws buzz, hammers pound and brushes paint underneath the warm winter sun. At the corner of the first jetty, a man lets a wild seal snatch bits of fish from his lips for donations of money.
At the end of the second jetty bobs the Arno Louis Kaapstad, an old white, red and blue wooden fishing boat. Philip Rice, one of Hout Bay’s greatest – and most outspoken – environmental advocates, works and lives on board. Rice epitomizes the hardened seaman; his face is weathered and wrinkled and hands rough and stained; but his friendly and quirky personality is disarming and pleasant.
Rice grew up in Hout Bay and fished the chilly Atlantic from an early age. Every nearby ridge, cave, nook, cranny and trail is ingrained in his mind, making him a brilliant guide. For better or worse, he is well-versed with the gradual degradation of the harbour.
As we prepare to head into the mountains surrounding Hout Bay, Rice tells me to leave my pricey DSLR camera behind, along with my phone and backpack.
“Muggings have really increased in the area; people are too scared to even go into the mountains anymore” Rice says as he pulls on a green ball cap and picks up a lead pipe.
He’s right. Just two weeks earlier, a man mountain biking in the eastern foothills of Hout Bay was ambushed and robbed by three men brandishing knives and guns. A week after my meeting with Rice, a woman was attacked by knife-wielding muggers near the downtown area.
We hop the gap between Rice’s boat and the jetty and saunter toward the distant mountains. Rice carries our water bottles and his phone in a plastic bag and grips the pipe tightly with another hand. I am confident in his ability to deter any potential attacks for he served with the First Parachute Regiment during the Angolan Bush War and walks with a slight limp in his gait, the product of the AK-47 round that passed, just shy of the bone, through his right leg.
Rice walks a few meters ahead and looks down behind his boat. Twisted, rusted steel spirals out of the water. Rotted ropes skim the surface and flotsam drifts.
“See this? This is one of 15 boats that is laying at the bottom of this harbour. 15 boats in the busiest fishing port in this country. You want to talk about a dangerous mess. Not only is it a threat to our boats, all these nets and ropes kill seals and dolphins”.
A few months earlier, Rice was arrested when he descended on the sunken boat to rescue a seal caught in a fishing net.
“I was charged with theft because I took and threw away the net the seal was drowning in. It’s not like anyone was even using that net. It was rotting away with the rest of the abandoned boat”.
Rice is still fighting to have his name cleared of any wrong doing.
The road to the mountains runs through a wide alley, flanked by fish processing plants and a building that has “Harbour Master” stamped on the second floor siding.
Rice points at the sign and shakes his head. “Can you believe there is no harbour master here in Hout Bay? No harbour master in what is South Africa’s largest fishing port” he says. “That means there is barely any authority here. People can do whatever the hell they want and there is no real force to clamp down on them”.
Docked behind the plant is a large fishing vessel. Men clad in blue and orange scamper around the deck and wharf, lifting large boxes filled with snow-white ice and bright orange fish. Two men dump the fish and ice onto the wharf and three more scoop up the fish and drop them into larger plastic boxes. Three well-dressed individuals, presumably managers for the processing plant, pencil the weight of each box on their clipboards and argue with the dissatisfied captain.
Knives flash and voices yell in the adjacent building, where the fresh fish are brought, weighed again, then descaled by workers brandishing wicked blades. The cement floor is slick from the blood and oil.
Past the fish plant, dozens of small shops, erected from steel gates and blue tarps, peddle various knick-knacks and curios. Along the wharf, two more street performers allow seals to snatch bites of fish from their lips.
At the edge of the shops, four locals gut and filet a Snoek they caught. Two tourist families encircle the locals and bid for rights to the fish.
The busy dock evaporates into an abandoned dirt parking lot. Boat trailers rust along the water’s edge and a group of men watch us from their perch atop a decrepit fence. A paved road cuts the parking lot off and we follow it, continuing along the water’s edge. On the other side of the road is the local fishmeal plant, from which a vile odor escapes.
The road sweeps past more docked ships, their decks piled high with fishing pots, and then curves along a tall, metal fence. Behind it is a ship repair yard. Men clamber up ladders, roll paint, heave boards and cut steel. The busiest fishing port in South Africa certainly lives up to its name.
Just past the shipyard is the Bay Harbour Market. With over 100 vendors peddling everything from necklaces to food, the market is Hout Bay’s greatest attraction.
Today, the market bustles with hundreds of guests. Drums thump from a nearby street band and the aroma of meats sizzling in sweet Cape Malay sauces floats in the air.
“Looks nice, huh?” Says Rice as we walk out of the market. “Wait till we cross the hill”.
Behind the market is a small knoll adorned with aged cannons and the remnants of a fort wall. On the other side, the hill slopes to a rocky beach, covered with trash bags, papers, tires and wires.It seems as though the market thrives on the idea: “Out of sight out of mind”. However, there is one truth about landfills, they expand.
Tires, plastic bottles and trash fill the spaces in between the stones. We descend on the beach and pick our way through the landfill.
The harmful effects of the pollution are identifiable across the shores and throughout Hout Bay. Many seals have netting or plastic wrapped tightly around their throats and cuts gaping wounds that are prone to lethal infections.
While seals die from strangulation, drowning and infection, it is estimated that more than 100,000 sea turtles and birds around the world choke to death on bits of plastic. Humans too, are negatively affected by the seaborne trash.
A large number of plastic products are, in fact, biodegradable. Bags, cups, utensils, Styrofoams and many more common contributors to ocean trash decompose quickly. This decomposition releases countless vile chemicals including: cadmium, lead, mercury and bisphenol A into the water. Sea-life exposed to these compounds experience death, birth defects and various cancers.
Consumption of contaminated sea-life can cause symptoms similar to those witnessed in the sea-life. With an industry reliant on the capture and selling of fish, crustaceans and shellfish, contaminated waters and seafood too dangerous to consume could prove a death sentence to Hout Bay’s economy. Although most of the fish sold in the Bay’s markets are caught many kilometers further out at sea, it is only a matter of time until the pollution spreads from Hout Bay’s shores and into the surrounding fishing grounds. The sheer amount of litter on Hout Bay’s beaches suggests that the quantity of flotsam in and under the surrounding waters is massive.
The pollution doesn’t come solely from plastics and other rubbish but from overpopulation as well.
Philip mentions Imizamo Yethu, a township in Hout Bay. Thousands live there, cramped into tiny, ill-kept shanties. Upstream from the bay, the pollution (human waste and other rubbish) this and other townships dump into the Bay’s watershed caused the closure of Hout Bay’s beaches in 2009 and 2014 due to dangerous levels of e-coli bacterium.
The 2009 public health warning read,
Dr. Paul Nkurunziza, acting Executive Director: City Health says: “In order to secure public health, residents and visitors are urged to refrain from using the water body for any form of recreation. This includes swimming, playing and drinking.”
However, the city of Hout Bay received complaints and warnings of the increased water pollution as early as 2006. An article by Heather Downie reported that Justin O’Riain, a zoologist at the University of Cape Town, said, “The wetland waters turned from clear to fetid. A strong smell of sewage followed by a mass walkout of crabs alerted me to the problem.”
Ivan Toms, the director of City Health at the time, then dismissed the alert as a “false alarm”. Three years later, O’Riain’s concerns proved correct.
Locals open up freely about the pollution of the Disa River, including Rice’s childhood friend, Emil Gertz. Gertz, like Rice, has been fighting for the preservation of Hout Bay. An April 2015 newsletter called Hout and About praised Gertz for “single-handedly beginning operation ‘Hout Bay Common Rehabilitation'”.
“The sewage plant is as guilty of polluting as anyone else,” Gertz said one night as we drove around Cape Town, “there are pipes along the Disa River that leak raw sewage into the river”.
Despite the ecological importance of the river to the vitality of Hout Bay’s ecosystem, it is unprotected. Sewage enters the river and its tributaries freely as do rubbish bags filled with plastics and chemicals. The only protection the river receives is from concerned citizens like Rice and Gertz. This lack of preservation and environmental responsibility resulted in the closure of the beaches and the poisoning of Hout Bay’s waters.The water was cleaned (relatively) and the beaches reopened. On this day, rowers paddle out through the surf and children splash in the shallows. E-coli may be rid at the time being, however, it is only a matter of time until it returns.
Although the efforts of Rice, Gertz and other citizens are valiant, two men and handfuls of concerned citizens can only do so much. The Bay’s preservation must be regulated, funded and enforced by Hout Bay’s government if the harbour is to survive.
Unfortunately, water pollution is not Hout Bay’s only ecological concern. Down the beach we run into remnants of another disaster; the massive rate of poaching among the Bay’s various sea-life.
“I’m taking you to the Abalone graveyards next,” Philip says grimly as we ascend a steep bank with scattered mountains of crayfish shells, poached by local fishermen and entrepreneurs.
We cross over the bank and walk along a narrow footpath that runs between a sheer embankment and a tall fence that skirts around buildings under construction. Empty oil and gas cans lay scattered around the construction grounds. Pipes run under the fence, footpath, jut out midway down the embankment and leak liquid down toward the bay.
The footpath is eroded away at points and Philip and I jump over the gaps. The new concrete settlement under construction is 40 meters away. How many years until the ocean sucks away the ground and pulls the housing into the water?
A stone pathway takes us away from the narrow trail and carries us past the sewage plant whose pipes are rumored to leak e-coli ridden sewage into the Bay’s watershed.
The path turns narrow and rough and wraps around a sharp bend that takes us out of sight of any buildings.
Rice is more alert, his eyes analyze the path before us, searching for signs of human life as criminals often ambush and mug unsuspecting individuals. An encounter with a trigger happy or knife-wielding mugger can prove lethal.
“These tracks are old.” Rice reports, his training as a bush tracker during the Angolan Bush War kicking in. We remain vigilant nonetheless, checking our corners and the trail ahead of and behind us.
Millions of years ago, the Atlantic ocean carved the rocky beach we pick our way through. The ocean, many meters deeper at the time, carved the imposing, sheer cliffs that tower over our right flank. The shifting of tectonic plates and the violent waters hurled boulders the size of houses down from the surrounding mountains and left them stacked and scattered across the rocky beach. We scramble up ledges, slink through narrow passages and tunnels formed by stacked boulders and ascend stony footpaths that grant spectacular views over the vast Atlantic. The beauty is unrelenting.
“A current from Antarctica flows through here,” Rice notes as he points down at the crystal clear water that flows around rocks we hop across. “This is some of the cleanest, natural water in the world. But all that sewage and trash is going to ruin it”.
We push away from the beach and into the water, balancing on stones to keep our feet dry.
The water below us teems with life and color. Small fish, some bright and some brown, dart away from our shadows and over dark purple and bright orange Sea Urchins that decorate the seabed. Dozens of various starfishes, crustaceans, mollusks and fish populate the clear and chilly water. It is the complete opposite of the bay a mere kilometer or two away, where pop bottles are more common than sea-life.
Only a few minutes could be spared admiring the beautiful seabed for the tide rises quickly along this stretch of beach, often trapping hikers and fishermen and forcing them to be rescued by helicopter. We walk back from the water and continue our hike to the Abalone Graveyards.
An hour and a half later, we pause at the crest of a steep ridge and peer down at the valley below. To the right, thick, brush forest runs from the valley and over the saddle between two mountains. At our left, rocky beach stretches out to white sand that dead ends at the Atlantic. Seal Island floats in the distance.
“Your own private, white sand beach,” I say jokingly to Rice.
He smiles and turns to me, “That’s not sand”.
We descend from the ridge to the beach and hike toward the ‘white sand’. My error soon becomes clear. The ‘sand’ is in fact hundreds of thousands of Abalone shells and fragments of shells. All poached.
“Welcome to the Abalone Graveyards” Rice announces.
The sight is horrifying. I have seen poached elephants and rhino; poached mollusks may seem trivial, but the sheer volume and unchallenged poaching of the Abalone was shocking. Two meter deep channels between boulders overflow with the empty shells. They stream down from these channels and spill out to the beach.
“This is why the Abalone are going extinct in this region” Rice says. “People come in, pull them from the water, shuck out the meat, leave the shells and carry the bags over that saddle and into Hout Bay”.
The method of the poaching is what is driving the Abalone to regional extinction. Poachers pull thousands of Abalone on shore and shuck out every organism, regardless of size and age. This means that the poachers are removing every generation of Abalone from the waters, including the juveniles which have not yet had time to reproduce. This indiscriminate killing prevents the birth of new generations of Abalone. Eventually, the waters will be void of reproductively capable Abalone and the mollusks will disappear from the region.
Mollusks are of ecological importance for they filter water of potential pollutants and keep destructive algal growth to a minimum. The removal of any organism from an ecosystem can prove tragic. The extinction of these vital mollusks from this coastal environment could spell death for all the species that depend on Abalone for water purity.
Rice and I eventually leave the graveyards and climb up into the mountains. The movement of the poached Abalone is easily detected. After being shucked on the beach, the mollusks are crammed into trash bags and then carried over the saddle. Poachers move the bags into Hout Bay where the poached Abalone are then loaded into trucks and never seen again. The path they follow is littered with empty trash bags, rotting Abalone, discarded bottles and other rubbish.
We make the summit of the saddle in twenty minutes and turn to look back out over the graveyards. A small boat has entered the ‘protected’ area. Four men on board dump crayfish traps overboard. Poachers of Abalone and crayfish operating in broad daylight. Unchecked and unchallenged.
Hout Bay appears on the other side of the saddle and we descend another rubbish-laden trail. We pause at a final point looking out over the bay.
“It’s beautiful now, but not for much longer” Rice says.
Looking out at the purplish mountains, dark gentle water and the teeming vegetation it is hard imagine the loss of the purity of all that stretches out to the horizon. The mountains will continue to stand and the water will continue to stir. However, the trash continues to accumulate on the mountains, the sewage continues to flow into the water and vegetation continues to be clear cut to make way for poorly erected homes in a fruitless effort to ease the overpopulation.
Hout Bay is plagued by the absence of governmental regulation and the involvement of a majority of its citizens that is necessary to relieve the issues that threaten to destroy the harbour. Men and women like Philip Rice and Emil Gertz can make a difference, but only if support for their cause is significantly multiplied.
Hout Bay can only remain behind the eight ball for so long. Eventually, the pollution seen in the Disa River and all across the Bay’s shoreline will become too much to effectively purify. The waters will be lost to trillions of dangerous microbes for all of the natural purifying organisms will have been destroyed by poachers. The sea-life will perish and migrate away from the fishing harbour’s waters. The tourists will avoid the contaminated beaches. The businesses will struggle to survive and, most likely, wither away. Immediate preservation and conservation of Hout Bay’s fragile ecosystem is crucial for the survival of South Africa’s busiest fishing port.