Cape Flats fishermen still catching carp despite City health warning

The municipality has suspended fishing at Zeekoevlei due to high heavy metal levels, but people are still fishing in the Lotus River canal

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A fisher shows off the carp he caught in the canal. A fish can sell between R30 to R100 depending on its size. Photos: Ashraf Hendricks

  • Freshwater fishermen are catching carp in the Lotus River canal, following a City of Cape Town clampdown on fishing in Zeekoevlei.
  • Some fishermen say they depend on the fish which they take home to eat or sell.
  • The City has said high heavy metal levels in the fish made it unsafe for human consumption.

The ban on fishing in Zeekoevlei because of high levels of mercury and lead in the fish has sent fishermen, some of whom say they depend on their catch of carp for their livelihoods, to the Lotus River canal instead.

Along the canal, which runs between houses and flows into Zeekoevlei, the fishers catch carp with large nets or on lines with hooks. Some chase the fish down the shallow waters of the canal and into an awaiting net. Children join in, particularly during school holidays.

On 28 August the City of Cape Town suspended recreational fishing at Zeekoevlei because the fish were not considered safe for human consumption. Deputy mayor and Mayco Member for Spatial Planning and Environment Eddie Andrews said high levels of heavy metals such as mercury and lead had been detected in tissue samples of the fish.

The City’s figures from 2021 showed that mercury levels ranged from undetectable to more than 190 parts per million (ppm). The recommended level of mercury is 0.5ppm or less. Lead levels ranged between 1.26 to 7.04 ppm. The recommended level for lead is 1.5ppm.

Mitchells Plain fisher Riedewaan Phiri says the ban on fishing in Zeekoevlei has taken away people’s livelihoods and forced them to fish in the canal, which is a lot dirtier with lots of litter booms.

“Those people are fishing in a canal, not because they want to, but because they have to,” said Phiri.

James Hampton (left) and Riedewaan Phiri have been fishing in the vlei for years.

The carp is loaded alive into the back of cars. One fisher told GroundUp that a few days earlier, they had caught a fish so big they could barely carry it.

There is a huge market for the fish in the area. A small fish will sell for about R30 and a big one between R80 to R100. The fishers don’t usually scale the fish because people prefer to buy it alive and fresh.

Phiri also showed GroundUp the bait he uses to catch the fish. There are various flavours of the pungent bait, such as caramel and garlic, and he says he has to buy a lot because the fish can be picky.

He mostly catches carp, an invasive species, and occasionally tilapia.

“We’ve got a lot of youngsters that also fish and I worry about what will happen with them,” said Phiri. He says fishing is good for them.

The fish are loaded into cars.

James Hampton, also from Mitchells Plain, said fishing in the vlei had been going on for generations, “even before houses were built here”.

“This is something I learnt from my father, and him from my grandfather.”

Hampton has fished in the sea since he was a teenager and started inland fishing about 15 years ago. When Zeekoevlei was still open for fishing, he says, he would queue from 5am for a spot. The vlei is over 250 hectares big but fishing was only possible at demarcated spots.

A child fishes with a net on the canal.

Andrews said Zeekoevlei had been closed to the public following a sewage spill in 2021. Tests had been done and levels of mercury and lead in fish were shown to far exceed levels that were safe for human consumption. When the vlei opened again to the public, fishing was still banned.

The suspension on fishing was only lifted after the April 2022 drawdown and then only catch and release was allowed, said Andrews. But the City had found that some fishermen were coming at night to catch illegally and sell the fish.

“The City’s Biodiversity Management team communicated this to our Protected Area Advisory Committee (PAAC) and it was decided at the PAAC that we should suspend all fishing activities, unless it’s done as an organised competition,” said Andrews.

Fish are caught with nets and lines in the Lotus River canal.

He said sources of heavy metals included sewage, agricultural products like pesticides, motor oil, as well as natural sources.

In a recent report, advocacy group Masifundise called on the government to formally recognise the small-scale inland fishing sector. Case studies done across the country showed that small-scale inland fishers often face challenges with access rights and criminalisation.

The Zeekoevlei fishers said that no-one had got sick from eating the fish caught in the canal.

Phiri was sceptical of the “old” test results which date from about two years ago. He said he had raised this with the City and Zeekoevlei management but communication with them had been difficult.

Asked when the vlei might be opened to fishing again, Andrews said: “This is difficult to predict, but our Environmental Management Department is working with the City’s Health Department on trying to find a solution.”

This uncertainty is frustrating, says Phiri, who has fished his whole life and has recently retired. “I said when I retire, this is what I want to do; what I love.”

Fishing is still banned in Zeekoevlei because of high levels of heavy metals including mercury.

TOPICS:  Environment Fishing

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