THE navy has started investigating a fleet of at least 28 Chinese trawlers allegedly operating illegally off the Wild Coast.
Anglers with smartphones and ship-tracking apps have become the mouth of public outrage over the arrival of the Lu Huang Yuan Yu fleet.
A Facebook post on Salt Fishing SA by Mark Hicks, which first blew the whistle on the Chinese vessels switching off their AIM monitoring beacons at night while off the Wild Coast, was shared 6,215 times by noon on Friday.
Navy spokesman Capt Zamo Sithole said on Friday: "The South African Navy has recently conducted operations in the Port Shepstone to Mazeppa Bay area, specifically to address illegal activities in this area."
He added: "The South African Navy condemns any violation of the South African law at sea."
However, he cautioned: "The South African Navy does not have a jurisdiction over illegal fishing within the exclusive economic zone. This is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The South African National Defence Force is, however, always ready to provide support to (the department), if so requested."
Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries spokeswoman Palesa Mokomela said their inshore protection vessel, the Ruth First, checked nine vessels and found them to be "brand-new and en route from China to Congo".
"Our inspectors inspected them and found no fish or fishing material."
She said there was a good chance that the fleet had already passed the west coast and had left SA’s waters.
But recreational anglers are not buying it.
John Rance, environmental officer for the Border Deepsea Angling Association said: "No-one is naively believing that."
He said further investigations were being conducted and he commended Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency for getting involved behind the scenes.
The agency had not responded to questions at the time of writing on Friday.
On Thursday at 10pm, Wild Coast resident Barry Sahd said he watched an alleged Chinese trawler slowly make its way towards Durban with its main floodlight illuminating the water behind the ship.
"I was watching it through binoculars. It was a clear night and it was only 3km offshore," he said.
Kevin Cole, principal scientist at the East London Museum, warned that there was a rising global demand for fish.
"This is driving the process reported in our coastal waters."
While recreational anglers accused the Chinese trawlers of plundering the sardine run, Mr Cole said illegal long-line commercial boats would be targeting larger fish that gather to feed off the sardines.
These included yellow-fin tuna and broad-billed swordfish.
"This will have socioeconomic impacts on the local South African fishery industry as well as the ecology of the oceanic ecosystem," said Mr Cole.
"The by-catch from the long-lines is of great concern as larger predators such as sharks are removed from the system."
He said if illegal fishing were on the go it would will also affect species studies (natural mortality and fecundity) of fish and populations, as no statistics will be verifiable to make recommendations on sustainability for the local commercial fishing industry.
"In 2009 it was reported by the Institute for Security Studies that illegal fishing in South African waters was costing the country about R6bn a year, mostly related to the deep-sea trawl of the hake fishing industry.
"Questions were raised eight years ago by Sadc (Southern African Development Community) ministers of fisheries, that surveillance and monitoring in African waters should be improved."
While there were bilateral agreements on international fishing off the coast, Mr Cole asked: "Are the vessels reported legal, and why are they switching their transponders off?"