“Nokhaya, you must always watch the moon in the night sky. If you harvest the day after the moon is full, or when there is no moon, it will be a good harvest…if you harvest when the moon is half it will be a bad harvest”.
Nokhaya Mphehleleli is 26 years old and is part of the WWF Coffee Bay Mussel Rehabilitation Programme that has received crucial funding from The Green Trust. She was born in this lower Nenga region in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. She tells me that people have been dependent on the seashore’s wealth for centuries. In the Coffee Bay – Hole in the Wall area along the Wild Coast of South Africa, mussels have traditionally been part of the local people’s diet for many, many years.
“I remember the days when my mother would wake up, gather a crowd of women and walk down to the rocks. They would watch the tide and wait patiently for it to go out. Armed with long, flat, sharpened pieces of metal, they would walk barefooted over the jagged rocks and scrape the mussels off the rocks. Filling their buckets and talking and laughing while they harvested…there was never a shortage. When we went home, she would show me how to steam them and after they opened, she would call the old and young family members to come and eat. Sometimes she would fry them and serve them with samp and beans or stiff pap.”
However, this plentiful lifestyle has changed. Over the last 20 years there has been an increasing dependency on natural resources in the area.
Mphehleleli goes on to say: ”I remember before the 90’s the mussels were really big, now they are fewer and smaller. People in this area are unemployed, men have been retrenched from the mines, there has been a growth in population”.
It is estimated that 25% of households have no income and poverty in this region is excessive. The limited income generates a high dependency on external sources. The mussel population in the area has been under threat for some time with the increased pressure and demand for mussels over the holiday seasons (return of family members and influx of tourists).
Bonile Madolo, manager of the WWF Mussel Rehabilitation project, adds “Harvesting the mussels for sale proved economically rewarding for locals from the area which in time became a vicious spiral – the more mussels sold, the more money made, the more mussels harvested.”
Compounding this, law enforcement has been difficult to monitor because the terrain is jagged and irregular making it difficult to access the harvester on ad-hoc checkups.
This is why WWF has aimed to establish successful co-management structures in Coffee Bay to maintain sustainable use of the mussels. The objectives are to encourage mussels to grow back in the areas where they have previously been depleted making them more accessible to the people who rely on them for a primary food source; to create awareness around protecting marine life and managing it in a sustainable way; and to educate all community members about the responsibilities of future management.
Mussels are an extremely vital food source as they contain protein and, according to Xhosa custom, can promote fertility too. Mphehleleli adds: “ I grew up eating mussels, it is was our daily food source…if you eat enough mussels, you never have to eat meat. They take the role of meat. When I eat mussels, I feel nutritionally whole.”
By involving the local community in decision making, it mobilises the community into taking ownership of the project and the sustainable management of the mussels. Nosimo Vulindlela, a community member and committee member verifies this by saying: “This project has helped us not only to alleviate poverty, but to look to the future. It has been an eye opener to know how to harvest the mussels so they can come back over and over again…it is good to know how to replant them. The members of the community are also looking out for anyone who vandalises the mussels, we don’t like it when people take too many…people are becoming very respectful of the mussels now.”
Community members are trained to become monitors, trainers and drillers. The monitors walk the shores daily researching information about mussels and crayfish, talking to the harvesters, measuring (not policing) and gathering data. This information is then fed to the trainers who go back to their villages and communicate and educate others about the legalities and sustainability of harvesting mussels. The drillers work on a specially designed technique to reseed the mussels on the rocks that have been previously stripped by creating a four-cornered protection around a small area for 3/4 weeks to give the mussels a chance to attach themselves onto the rocks again.
Basic marine management is also taught and facilitated by the project not only on an adult level, but marine conservation awareness amongst the children is created too. Ntombekhaya Ntosh Tsheyi is the assistant coordinator for WWF sponsored Eco-School Programme at the Coffee Bay node. Tsheyi’s work involves: “…eight schools along the coast helping teachers to implement environmental education in the curriculum and developing the small projects throughout the year dealing with marine life. I combine training with actively going out in the field…I often take the children down to the rocks and get them to touch and feel things, to smell and listen, and then to discuss how things would be if it wasn’t there anymore”.
The community has been activitated , the mussel rehabilitation technique has been achieved, people have been trained to put the smaller mussels back on the rocks to reattach themselves for growth and a better understanding of community livelihoods has been gained through the efforts of the project.
Now Mphehleleli will be able to one day tell her children to watch the moon as a guide for a good or bad harvest.