The Panel of Experts that reviewed the scientific basis for breaching the mouth of the Lake St. Lucia Estuary at the St. Lucia Eco Lodge has found that there were many ecological reasons that would justify the breach.
These included the prolonged closure of the system from the sea; the concern over accumulated sediment in the system; the presence of alien invasive species; a decrease in biodiversity within the system and a decrease in the nursery function of the estuary.
This is according to the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, who on Thursday released the report by a Panel of Experts that reviewed the scientific basis for breaching the mouth of the Lake St. Lucia Estuary at the St. Lucia Eco Lodge.
An open letter written from a group of concerned scientists citing environmental dangers stemming from the artificial breaching of the estuary mouth prompted the Minister to appoint an independent, multidisciplinary Panel of Experts to investigate.
“The review found that while the breach was contrary to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) recommendations that no artificial breaching should occur, the Estuarine Management Plan did permit limited breaching for ecological reasons.
“Accordingly, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority performed the breaching within the mandate as approved through their Maintenance Management Plan (MMP), authorised by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, and in line with the prescriptions of related legislation,” Creecy said.
With regards to the impact of the mouth opening on the functioning of the estuary and wetland system and whether the objectives of the breach were met, the Review found that the opening seemed to have a positive effect on the restoration of the nursery function of the system.
It also found that a number of marine fish for tourism and recreational fishing had been reintroduced.
Other positive results included the return of megafauna to the mouth area and the shift from fresh to brackish water in the Lake.
“However, the report noted that there was no observed or measured change in the removal of sediment, of common reeds and alien invasive species, no change in the loss of mangroves or in relief to small and large-scale farmers from back-flooding,” the Minister said.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site is the first South African site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1999 in recognition of its superlative natural beauty and unique global values.
The Panel of Experts made the following recommendations:
- In accordance with the MMP, maintenance breaching could continue in exceptional circumstances. However, the exceptional circumstances — ecological or social – for future maintenance breaching must be clearly defined before any further action. While it is clearly understood that the GEF report advises against breaching, it is practical and necessary to consider the effects of allowing the mouth to remain closed.
- Accordingly, the second key recommendation of the Panel is that iSimangaliso develop and intensify an in-house monitoring plan and build capacity to collect monitoring data. This includes both biodiversity monitoring and socio-economic data on effects of the system function. The Panel noted that future breaching should not take place without adequate ecological monitoring before and after the event, to ensure the most efficient breach in terms of the intended objectives as well as potential socio-economic reasons. Continued intensive monitoring would also allow for a more adaptive management strategy, which is more suitable for the dynamic St Lucia system.
- To assist with relief to farmers in the uMfolozi-Msunduzi floodplain as a result of back-flooding, the report recommends clearing the Msunduzi and beach channel of vegetation and sediment to allow water to flow freely from the floodplain to the mouth. Also recommended is dune maintenance to limit encroachment of vegetation.
- The Panel also recommends urgent improvement in communication between the management of Isimangaliso and stakeholders including communities, with the aim of allowing stakeholders to better understand management decisions. This includes the translation of technical documents into an easily understandable format.
“The Panel states that moving forward, it is clear that the St Lucia Lake, protected and managed by iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority, can no longer be managed as an isolated system. Activities in the floodplain and catchment areas of the feeder rivers contribute to the health of the St Lucia system.
“As such, the Panel recommends the development of a comprehensive Reserve Determination of Ecological Water Requirements be developed.
“Given the multi-functionality of the system, there is need to review the existing management plan in order to increasingly recognise the estuary dependent economic activities and the inter-relationship between the wetland, forests, wildlife, marine ecosystem, tourism, and livelihoods dependent on fishing and other forms of bio prospecting,” the Minister said.
She said this will require inter-disciplinary contributions from varied fields and must include consideration of how emerging small and micro enterprises can be supported and developed alongside the environmental reality of the system.
The Minister confirmed that her Department and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority have committed to ensuring that the recommendations made by the panel will be implemented.
“This will be done in collaboration with Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife and sister government departments, including the Departments of Agriculture, Land and Rural Development, Water and Sanitation, as well as the District and local municipalities.
“I have also requested that some of the members of the Panel have their terms extended by a period of six months to monitor and advise on the implementation of the recommendations,” Creecy said.