python in a fish net drowning
An African python was entangled in one of the many illegal gillnets placed in the Tzaneen dam by illegal immigrant fishermen.

A silent war has been raging on the banks of the Tzaneen Dam for more than a decade. Illegal fishermen, many of them illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe, live in groups among the bushes that grow next to the dam. Here, under the cover of the dense bushveld they spend their days manufacturing kilometres worth of fishnets (gillnets) which they deploy inside the dam at nightfall.

It is a vicious practice known as gill-netting and it is prohibited by law.  The Nature and Environmental Conservation Ordinance explicitly states that an application for a license to angle or to use a cast-net in any inland waters must be submitted, contemplated by the director, the receiver of revenue or a person authorized by the director to issue such a license. On receipt of the application form and payment of the fees, the relevant license will be issued.

Hundreds of metres of fishing line used to manufacture gill-nets confiscated during the arrest of a suspect.

The Ordinance states that no person shall catch more than 10 fish per day, no person shall, while angling, employ a method to hook fish other than in the mouth, and no persons are allowed to catch fish with gill-nets, except the owner where the land completely surrounds such waters. This means where no river system runs through the waters or dam.

A group of local fishermen have been fighting to rid the Tzaneen Dam and its surroundings of these illegal fishermen and their nets for more than a decade and have removed many kilometres worth of illegal gill-nets during this period.

“The problem with these gill-nets is that these guys catch everything in that net, not just the specific species of fish they were intending to. The fish they catch is resold in the townships as a food source,” explained a member of the local fishing fraternity who wishes to remain anonymous.

“We have regular instances of other wildlife caught and strangled in these nets and drown as a result. Just this last week we had one of our guys from outside of Tzaneen try to rescue a fish eagle in one net whilst noticing a baboon in another net a few metres further down the stream. He tried to rescue them both but was alone in the boat and so the best he could do was report it to the authorities.”

Later that same week a large python was removed from the dam who got caught in one of the illegal gill-nets and drowned. During lockdown a total of five kilometres worth of illegal gill-nets were removed from the Tzaneen Dam in one morning. Local fishermen state that they now place drag hooks behind their boats and just travel up and down the dam from end to end and collect hundreds of metres of netting in one single outing.

One of the crudely manufactured boats used by the illegal gill-netters on Tzaneen Dam.

The fishermen are aggressive and territorial and have no qualms about attacking the locals who remove their nets. One fisherman recalled an incident where he was removing nets from the dam and one of the illegals swam up to his boat brandishing a machete and threatening to kill him if he did not leave the area.

The Department of Environmental Affairs joined hands with local security groups and concerned fishermen to try and combat the scourge of these illegal immigrants, but it seems as though the good guys are fighting a battle that may never come to an end. One of the net-makers was arrested this week and hundreds of metres of netting confiscated along with a handcrafted steel boat and makeshift canoe.

a crude home-made canoe confiscated.

The authorities are very well aware of the locations of these groups of illegal immigrant net-fishers, and in fact have been for many years. There appears to be very little policing by the local departments and not enough follow through when arrests are eventually made. This means that the gill-netters keep returning and keep destroying the local fauna.

In exchange for this last arrest, Tzaneen sacrificed a fish eagle, a baboon, a fully grown adult python and a group of sports fishermen who vowed never to return to the dam.

This is sadly a developing story, and one that has been kept from the public eye through distractions in the political arena. It is a story that Bulletin will be keeping our readers informed on as events unfold and more information becomes available to us.