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A walk along the beach is considered a recreational activity for some people who live in coastal cities or towns. But for 12 passionate individuals from the coastal Kogelberg region of the Western Cape, about 90 km from Cape Town, walking on the beach is a central part of their daily job.
This group of Kogelberg ocean warriors, mostly youth, are between the ages of 21 and 46. Their role is to monitor coastal human activities, log sightings of marine species and their behaviours as well as track the condition of the beaches in Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond, and six estuaries between Rooi-Els and Fisherhaven. These 12 people, made up of nine women and three men, feel collectively proud knowing that their job contributes to improving local knowledge and building an understanding of the ocean and how people interact with it in these biodiversity-rich areas. Dimpho Lephaila chats to them to gain more insight into their work for the oceans.
The group of 12, call themselves “MCCMs”. It stands for Marine and Coastal Community Monitors which is their official job title. The title also spells out everything that their job entails.
Four of the MCCMs originally come from three of South Africa’s oldest fishing communities, namely Kleinmond, Betty's Bay and Pringle Bay, while the rest relocated to these towns to seek livelihood opportunities. This group first got involved with WWF in 2019 through a learnership programme that is part of a small-scale fishers’ project in the Kogelberg region that WWF has been leading since 2013. The learnership is part of an intervention to diversify livelihoods for these ocean-reliant communities whose lives are impacted by dwindling seafood stocks caused by the impacts of illegal fishing and climate change.
Apart from monitoring the coast, the MCCMs have been involved in a lot of additional activities over the past three years, all of which helped them gain knowledge and experience in ocean-related work. Their hands-on experience stems from analysing underwater video footage gathered from the BRUVs project to participating in and organising beach clean-ups and assisting with or reporting maintenance issues around coastal infrastructure.
The monitors were also taken back to their schooling days, but luckily without going back to the classroom! Through correspondence learning, they each received financial, tutoring and mentoring support to either complete Matric or improve their Matric results. This individual investment was so that each of them could qualify to study for a Higher Certificate in Criminal Justice at Nelson Mandela University to help them become more employable in roles related to fisheries law enforcement, such as a marine ranger or similar positions in marine protected areas.
Julia Authur, Nomfusi Msitho and Robert Kyzer are three members in the group of MCCMs, and they each speak passionately about their work. Every monitoring day is a little different. Julia tells me that it is dependent on the weather and what they encounter during each daily walk.
Nomfusi explains that their day begins at the WWF office in Kleinmond. They gather every morning at 09:00, geared up with comfortable shoes, sunscreen and hats in summer and warm clothes in winter. They cover Kleinmond and Betty’s Bay beaches, plus six estuaries between Rooi-Els and Fisherhaven – hence they divide themselves into smaller groups per area. They further divide themselves into tasks for the day. These include recording human activities they see on their walks, (such as fishing, jogging and swimming), bird and mammal counts and mortalities, types of litter found on the beach and the daily estuary condition. At the end of each day, they return to the office to enter and analyse the data.
Although none of the monitors have a marine science or zoology background, their knowledge and understanding of the species along their coast continue to improve every day.
The Kogelberg coastal region is a haven for seabirds, many of which are endangered. One of the most special bird species found in Betty’s Bay, at Stony Point, is the endangered African penguin. Stony Point is one of only two mainland breeding colonies of this species in South Africa.
These monitors could tell you about most of the local seabirds in their sleep. They don’t speak of generic types such as cormorants, terns, gulls or oystercatchers, they are specific in their language and call each species by its full name. Robert shares that apart from the African penguin, other common birds they encounter include Cape and white-breasted cormorants, kelp and Hartlaub's gulls, common and swift terns, as well as white-fronted plovers and the African black oystercatcher. I’ve recently learnt the good and bad news: first, that black oystercatcher numbers are finally recovering, while sadly, several cormorant populations are decreasing.
The monitors have learnt that black oystercatchers that breed on the coast do so more in summer than in winter. This poses a high threat to the eggs and chicks because summer is also the busiest time of the year. Luckily on some beaches where there are usually about four recurring nesting sites, such as Betty’s Bay and Pringle Bay, there are cordoned-off areas to allow the birds to mate and rear their chicks safely.
Apart from birds, other species they monitor are marine mammals. The most commonly sighted is the Cape fur seal. From time to time, they also spot common dolphins and orcas, as well as Bryde’s and southern right whales. This reminds me that this is the best time of year – May to October – to spot southern right whales in South African waters. These giant mammals migrate to our warmer waters where they drop their calves and feed in the nutrient-rich waters of the west coast.
Apart from extreme heat and icy winds which the monitors experience from time to time, they also occasionally come across dead animals. They record these sightings too. So far, the most common (although infrequent) are seal and bird mortalities and sometimes jellyfish. They’ve also noticed that more seals die during their weaning season, usually between October and November. Sometimes mothers go away to search for food for weeks, leaving the pups behind. In some of these cases, the pups then die.
They also encounter litter, including degraded plastic materials and plastic packaging, both of which are highly dangerous to marine life. If not ingested, the animals can also get caught up in certain plastic items which cause slow and painful suffering that can eventually lead to death if the animals are not rescued in time.
The MCCMs also organise beach clean-ups in their communities. After sorting and recording the items picked up, they take the recyclable material for recycling with the help of the local municipality. They also encourage their neighbourhoods to separate the recyclable material for collection.
Recently, coastal monitors from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment have started working with the MCCMs to collect and analyse their data from the six estuaries found in this region for use in their projects. The MCCMs have also been sending other data to CapeNature.
The work the MCCMs do for their beloved coast is only the beginning. Once they complete their Criminal Justice course, they plan to explore more opportunities where they can apply their knowledge and skills to contribute to the good management and conservation of our oceans. One of them, Lilitha Sokoyi, has already started. She was appointed in May 2022 as a Community Liaison Officer, working directly for WWF in the Kogelberg coastal region. Lilitha took over from Kholofelo Ramokone who has been promoted to be WWF’s Small-scale fisheries project coordinator in the Kogelberg.
The journey of the MCCMs would not have been possible without financial support from the Local Economic Development (LED) office in the Overstrand municipality that pays the salaries of five monitors and BMZ who fund the rest of the learnership and wider WWF Kogelberg project.
The collaboration between WWF, government departments, provincial conservation agencies and local municipalities in supporting these upcoming environmentalists is a real investment for nature and people.
Learn more about our work with South Africa’s fishing communities.