34 South’s seahorse project goes south

34 South – Knysna’s iconic waterfront restaurant – has lost its seahorses, which were removed earlier this week by officials of Marine and Coastal Management, who were accompanied in their task by six officers from SAPS and Knysna’s municipal law enforcement branch.

The removal follows the withdrawal of the company’s permit to keep the fishes on public display.

“I’m insulted that they brought only six policemen to evict our seahorses,” said the restaurant’s owner, Charles van Tonder. “Surely at my age, I’m worth ten at least?”

Mr. van Tonder said that 34 South first received its permit at the suggestion of Jacqui Lockyear, whose research it supported.

Dr. Lockyear, then a PhD candidate with the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science at Rhodes University, was the lead author in the paper ‘The distribution and abundance of the endangered Knysna seahorse Hippocampus capensis (Pisces: Syngnathidae) in South African estuaries,’ which was published by the African Journal of Aquatic Science in 2006.

“In order to help fund her research, Jacqui moved the seahorses that used to be housed in the old NSRI aquarium at The Heads to a tank here in the restaurant, and we set up a collection which brought in almost R 50,000.00 for her work,” said Mr. van Tonder.

“When she completed her research, she motivated for us to have a permit to keep them, which was accepted based on the educational value – what Knysna & Partners’ Greg Vogt calls edutainment value – of having them on public display in a venue as accessible as ours.

“She was motivated by our enthusiastic campaign to provide information about seahorses, and to make them a lovable mascot for the Estuary.”

Mr. van Tonder said that the company has applied for and received permits consistently over a period of nine years, but that he’s noticed that the relationship with the authorities over these permits began to become “a little uncomfortable” during the past eighteen months.

“And then, lead by an official from the Knysna Basin Project, the troops swooped in like Hawks – with no prior consultation – and took our fishes away.

“Kind of ironic when you consider that the Knysna Basin Project was started through Dr. Lockyear’s work.”

JOB MAY BE LOST

Mr. van Tonder said that one member of staff at 34 South has been employed full time to look after the seahorse tank – to collect food for them in the mud flats, to keep a record of their health, and to keep the tank’s environment scrupulously clean and healthy.

“But now there’s nothing for him to do,” he said.

According to Mr. Vogt – who called for the renewal of the permit in an article published in the Knysna Plett Herald last week (Seahorses’ unsure future at iconic home, 25 August 2016) – it’s important to look at the contribution that 34 South has made.

“It’s clearly not a welfare issue, since SANParks has a similar tank, and there’s a strong argument that says that these fishes live better lives in well-maintained artificial environments than they might in the wild.

“But if you take away everything that 34 South has done, you have to ask what’s been lost – and what’s going to be lost now that they’re basically out of the conservation game.

“What would happen if every similar business was to withdraw its heartfelt support for conservation? Would government be able to achieve the same results on its own?

“On the other hand, if every single business were to take on one environmental issue and champion it in the way that 34 South has with the seahorse – well, we might live in a far, far better world.

“If 34 South was good enough to pioneer the extension of Jacqui Lockyear’s work into the public eye, you have to wonder what has changed that it’s no longer good enough to continue the legacy,” he said.

Mr. van Tonder said that he’s instructed his staff to develop an in-store display explaining what they’ve done for the Knysna seahorse in the past, and why their tank is now empty of its seahorses.

“Let the reader decide,” he said – adding that he’s developed a new empathy for the country’s finance minister, Pravin Gordhan.

“It’s tough trying to do the right thing when the forces are ranged against you.”