Mass mussel harvesting leaves North Coast beach rocks bare

At Eytie Point, between Zinkwazi and Nonoti villages, Nonoti residents have taken a great liking to the native mussel stocks, stripping the rocks bare of life in many places.

Poverty and the recent Covid-19 pandemic may be partially to blame, but with no conservation officers on hand to check bag limits over-exploitation of the coastline continues without restraint.

In the dune forest clearings, massive piles of mussel shells, several metres wide, and as much as half a metre deep in some places, can be found. 

Three separate clearings in the dune forest illustrate similar shell-dumping sites. 

A container filled with mussels, irrespective of size.

Every spring low the illegal mass harvesting can be witnessed.

Spades and cane knifes are used to unselectively scrape the rocks bare, taking both small and large mussels alike. 

Mussels are taken up into the dune forest in large drums and maize sacks where they are boiled over a series of fires. 

Once cooked, the mussels are shucked and the shells are discarded.

The edible content is transported away from the site, and the harvesters return to the rocks for more. 

Harvesters, transporters and cooks seem to work in an organised fashion.

One harvester, who refused to give her name, claimed that lockdown had left them no choice but to harvest from the ocean.

Mussels are taken up into the dune forest in large drums and maize sacks where they are boiled over a series of fires.

While this may be true, it does not explain the existence of much older mussel shell debris in this location long before the pandemic.

Professor Myron Peck, marine biologist at The University of Hamburg and Coordinating Editor-in-Chief of Marine Ecology Progress Series, said mussels were critical to the health of the coastline.

“Mussels are a key, habitat-forming species that build natural barriers to erosion, protect areas from flooding, and create 3-D habitat structure used by other marine animals.”

They filter the water to feed which reduces turbidity and increases water clarity. 

“Mussels recruit naturally from spat (juvenile shellfish) falls produced by the local mussel beds. By maintaining mussel stocks of the present, we can ensure that future generations will continue to exist and provide these benefits to the ecosystem,” said Peck.

A harvesting licence is required to remove Brown mussels (Perna perna) off the rocks. Permit holders are restricted to 30 mussels per day.

Every spring low the illegal mass harvesting can be witnessed as dozens of people remove the mussels from the rocks.

A licence costs R94.00, available at the post office.

This would normally promote the sustainable selection of larger individuals (which have endured many reproducing seasons).

Smaller mussels would be left on the rocks, until their turn to reproduce comes around. In this way repopulation would occur. 

At Eytie point this is certainly not the case. 

Previously KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife were responsible for maintaining marine conservation along this stretch of coastline, until their partnership with the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) expired in 2016.

DEFF took full custodianship of the coastline but they do not appear to have the manpower to police it.

A call to DEFF to report the illegal harvesting resulted in a promise to confront the perpetrators upon the next notification they receive (the next spring low tide).

To report poaching contact Thanduxolo Ntshangase at 079 444 9951.

• The author lives in Zinkwazi and is studying for a masters degree in marine ecosystems and fisheries with the University of Hamburg.