Estuaries are among some of our most important coastal ecological features and rank along with tropical rainforests and coral reefs as the world's most productive ecosystems – they are even more productive than both the rivers and the ocean that influence them from either side. Estuaries are a transition zone where fish, birds and animals of all sorts congregate to feed, find refuge, grow to adulthood, and stage migrations. They are unique places, strongly affected by tidal action, where land and river and sea merge into a dynamic natural complex.
Many commercially and recreationally important fish species depend on estuaries. According to studies undertaken in the USA, between 60 – 90% of all of their commercially important fish species spend some period of their life-cycles within estuaries. However, since commercial and recreational fishing occurs predominantly offshore or in rivers, the vital life history and energetic connections with estuaries have largely been disregarded. Estuaries provide a nursery for the larval forms of some marine fish species, and provide shelter and food for many young and adult fish and shellfish. These in turn provide food for other levels of the food chain including migrating birds, larger fish and marine mammals.
On the other hand estuaries are subject to numerous sources of ecological damage and are sites of high human habitation. Human pressure and poor management of the entire catchment has led to estuaries being polluted with weed infestations and over-utilized and trampled by domestic stock. Industrial chemicals such as lead, zinc and pesticides are pumped into estuaries and in many cases raw sewage is also pumped directly into these critically important eco-systems. Urban development has encroached right up to the edges of these systems and has negatively impacted on their ability to function ecologically. This degradation has resulted in many of South Africa’s estuaries being in a very poor state of health and management.
The C.A.P.E Estuaries Programme has over the last few years tried to improve this situation and has successfully embarked on developing a number of management plans for our major estuary systems. This process has included extensive stakeholder engagement which aims to get the communities living in the area of the estuary to take direct ownership of the particular site so as to ensure improved functioning of these systems..
The programme has a number of key objectives:
a. Ensure proper management of the estuaries water through input to River Catchment Management Agencies (CMA).
b. Ensure protection of aquatic life to optimum sustainable levels in line with improved water resources, whilst also eliminating alien invasive species.
c. Eliminate existing activities that are damaging to the environment and against policy – Illegal developments and actions (e.g. Houses, landing strips, jetties, slipways, clearing of indigenous riparian vegetation, illegal fishing etc.).
d. Eradicate, and assist private landowners to eradicate all invasive alien vegetation within the geographically defined estuary boundaries and rehabilitate indigenous flora.
e. Protect indigenous fauna and flora associated with the estuary waters and its defined surrounds.
f. Clearly define the geographic boundaries of the estuary system.
g. Establish a competent Estuary Management Forum (EMF) and an estuary management protocol. The EMF should have the required authority and resources to undertake and enforce its allocated responsibilities and which will be held accountable for its performance.
h. Allow social and economic development within the defined estuary space, only to the extent that it co-exists in terms of prioritized estuary imperatives. Encourage environmentally friendly development and stimulate sound building design and techniques (energy efficient and water wise).
i. Develop and implement local bylaws that will enable the management authority to give effect to the estuary management plan objectives and manage its allocated responsibility.
j. Develop an efficient law enforcement capability to ensure that both proactive and consequent steps are taken in support of the management authority’s duties and objectives.
k. Develop and implement an ongoing intensive public awareness campaign.
l. Establish a voluntary participating river forum of public stakeholders that are sincerely committed to improving the functioning of the estuary.
m. Establish a priority list of problems and an interim process to identify, monitor, deal with and prevent undesirable and unsuitable developments and activities.
The work being undertaken by the C.A.P.E Estuaries Programme is absolutely critical and we must all do our utmost to support this work.