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Fur Flies Over Lighthouse Penguins More articles...

The proposal to have a penguin rehabilitation centre at the Seal Point Lighthouse has caused a storm of controversy. The major boiling point is over penguin droppings and effluent being disposed or spilling into the wetlands and damaging the environment. And to stir things up a couple of radical individuals have allegedly used scare tactics by arguing that if the effluent lands in the sea it will attract sharks and place surfers lives at risk.

Moreover, there are fears of excessive demand for fresh water when the whole area faces water restrictions over the forthcoming festive season. In addition the controversy has resulted in "slime and slander" in the media, according to the Cape St Francis Civic Association (CSFCA) that finds it "disturbing that leading ecologists ave been attacked in the press for expressing valid concerns."

The Friends of St Francis Nature Reserves (Friends/SFNA) has also come into the fray with Shirley Cowling standing firmly by her published statements that Ajubatus (the local Marine and Wildlife Rescue service) continually changes goal posts, since she alleges it changed its stance on penguin numbers and on whether tourists would pay to see penguins - statements Hilton Thorpe, chairman of St Francis Kromme Trust, regards as 'unfair accusations by correspondents'.

And in another paper it was alleged that a group of Cape St Francis residents appear determined to stop it (the centre)' at all costs'. "There appears to be no opposition in principle to the concept of a marine rescue centre, but on the choice of the lighthouse as a venue," the report said.

The CSFCA, while not being completely anti, has strong reservations about the proposed site. "The main concern lies with the desirability, appropriateness, wisdom, suitability, sustainability of a penguin rescue centre and its attendant problems in such a vulnerable and sensitive site," says Elza van Lingen, chairman of the CSFCA. "We have heard that the Aston Bay/Seekoei site even though established by penguin experts and an experienced vet, nonetheless has problems in the month of December. We need the assurance of a range of experienced penguin experts to verify the wisdom of this site. Are the proposals for the CSF lighthouse in the best interests of the sick/recuperating penguins?" Elza asks.

Opponents' other concerns include: possible conflict with the Spatial Development Plan (SDP) on the grounds of having a commercial activity at the lighthouse; inadequacy of road access and parking; inadequate examination of alternative sites; Inadequacy of the public participation process; possible negative impacts on an area, which has been identified as part of an endangered eco-system, requiring the highest conservation priority; and possible additional stress to damaged penguins through uncontrolled exposure to tourists.

Press releases given, on request, to St Francis Chronicle by the CSFCA and the Trust, respectively, had largely opposing viewpoints on the controversy raging in other newspapers over the past month. The CSFCA provided comments in response to the Draft Scoping Report (by environmental consultants, CES in Grahamstown, who were commissioned by Ajubatus), while the Trust made comments based on objections to the rehabilitation centre, and not on the 108-page Report, that Hilton disclosed he hadn't read at the time of going to press.

The CSFCA maintains Ajubatus' efforts would be better used in improving the existing rescue centre at Seekoei under expert advice and in a community with a tradition of voluntary bird work, and close to the ideal release beach at Paradise beach (currently used by Ajubatus as its release site on the coast). "Our concern is not about the coffee shop per se, but that there is a need for full public participation to ensure that this is in the interests of the residents of Cape St Francis, and that this does not set a precedent for overruling the current policy to disallow businesses (attracting more than one vehicle at a time) in residential sites."

The CSFCA claims that since 2001 it has been in contact with the former Portnet to open the lighthouse to tourists, and house an empowerment tourism information project for the Sea Vista community. "But the Ajubatus project took preference," Elza says. "Nonetheless we chose to support the proposed Ajubatus tourist facilities to ensure the opening of the lighthouse and creation of jobs. We support the overall aims of Ajubatus.

"At an early meeting with Ajubatus management (5 November 2003), we were assured we would be consulted, our input welcomed, and that we'd have a permanent representative on Ajubatus' board of trustees. Regrettably, none of this happened, despite Ajubatus' proclaimed "open door" policy," Elza says, adding that, unfortunately, there is no "standard procedure" for public participation.

The Scoping Report proposes disposal of penguin effluent into the wetland as a first phase until the later seawater phase is initiated and indicates the disposal of volumes of up to 180 cubic metres in one day. The CSFCA therefore says its major concerns include the disposal of this effluent into the wetland and the proposed volumes of water for the penguin pools - equivalent to 60-80 households, "when the Greater St Francis is facing yet another Christmas without sufficient water."

The CFSCA and the Friends/SFNA stress they have not included any information about shark attractants in their concerns. "As for disposing of effluent into the sea, this would entail red tape, water quality monitoring and expense," it says. "St Francis Bay had its concerns about a penguin centre in their town, why can't we have our concerns?" Shirley asks.

In conclusion the CSFCA says the proposed site is highly sensitive in an endangered ecosystem and surrounded by wetlands. "The proponents have little experience in penguin centre design and management, and inadequate knowledge of the environment, and require expert input and monitoring; plus the provincial nature conservators are under-capacity (staffing/funding) to monitor activities at CSF far from their offices." Elza adds.

Founder of Ajubatus, John Dyer, was unable to comment at the time of going to press, but in its release the Trust says it cannot see that the running of a small coffee shop at the lighthouse is anything but a benefit, and is certainly not a ground for refusing permission to proceed. It points out the coffee shop belongs to Portnet, which has authority zoning over the lighthouse property, and as such is entitled to operate a commercial activity.

"This is stated government policy. This, in turn, will inevitably lead to up-grading of the access road and car park, and has nothing to do with Ajubatus."

The Trust maintains that though it has been suggested that the public participation process has been inadequate, there are standard procedures in place for such exercises, and to its knowledge these have been followed correctly. As for alternative sites, though the Scoping Report failed to consider these, the Trust says the entire coastline from Port Elizabeth to Rebelsrus was investigated and considered by Ajubatus. "Relevant factors were accessibility, cost, sustainability and impact. The lighthouse site was identified as the most suitable."

The Trust believes there will be two types of effluent arising from the rescue project. "Disposal of effluent is a critical environmental consideration, and spraying onto the fynbos or into the wetland, as suggested in the Draft Scoping Report, would be unacceptable. However, we are assured this will not happen.

"One form of effluent would come from the rehabilitation ponds, about the size of a standard domestic swimming pool, and will be in the form of dilute bird droppings. The other more serious form is effluent arising from cleaning operations for penguins that have been oil-polluted.

"This potentially harmful waste would be stored in a suitable tank, and removed from the site for appropriate treatment. There is therefore no threat to fynbos or wetlands arising from effluent disposal. 'With regard to the rehabilitation of ponds, there is a misapprehension that large volumes of water would be involved.

"The obvious source of water and point of discharge for the bio-degradable, non-toxic effluent from the rehabilitation ponds is the sea. This will solve all concerns regarding impact on the wetlands and quantities of water used. Unfortunately, this common-sense solution has been represented (not by the CSFCA or Friends/SFNA) as an invitation to Great White Sharks, which might attack surfers.

"The Trust regards this as a transparent form of scare tactics, which has no basis in reality. Are sharks attracted into rocky areas by small quantities of dilute penguin droppings and which would have been in the sea anyway had the birds been in the wild?

The Trust believes that should it be necessary to use fresh water instead, the amount needed would be relatively small, and nowhere near the 80 private dwellings suggested in the Scoping Report. "A more likely estimate is the amount required for one or two dwellings."

The Trust believes all these issues should be addressed in the Final Scoping Document, due to be released. This report will be sent to the Department of Economic Affairs, Environment and Tourism (DEAET) that will address all concerns, or pros and cons, and decide whether a full Environmental Impact Assessment is necessary.

The Trust maintains in conclusion that if the points (raised above) are correct, there appear to be no environmental or procedural reasons to refuse permission to Ajubatus to proceed. "There are mitigation measures which will need to be implemented, but none of them appear to be insuperable."

Asked to comment, Chris Cowling, CSFCA member, remarked: "For the record, on his own admission, Hilton had not read the Scoping Report at the time of going to press in another paper. "I find this unacceptable. Surely a person in his position who wants to comment accurately and credibly on these issues, should familiarise himself with that report."

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