Sea water and sand gush from a sand-pumping pipeline in Durban. While local residents have welcomed the belated operation to replenish sand in the North Beach area, many Local divers and fishermen fear that continued smothering of Vetch’s Pier near the harbour mouth is destroying unique marine recreation assets. Picture: TONY CARNIE
Sea water and sand gush from a sand-pumping pipeline in Durban. While local residents have welcomed the belated operation to replenish sand in the North Beach area, many Local divers and fishermen fear that continued smothering of Vetch’s Pier near the harbour mouth is destroying unique marine recreation assets. Picture: TONY CARNIE

Durban’s historic Vetch’s Pier — home to a multitude of fish, mussels, corals and other marine life — is being smothered and "killed" as city workers dump thousands of tons of sand into the sea.

Two decades ago, right on the doorstep of Africa’s busiest harbour, a team of marine researchers counted at least 74 fish species at Vetch’s — including rock cod, Evil-eye puffer-fish, Moorish Idols, barracuda and scorpionfish.

Local divers and recreational fishermen have been complaining for almost a decade about the effect of erratic sand-pumping operations on marine life at Vetch’s, but the appearance of new mountains of sand over the past few weeks has sparked fresh alarm.

The latest pumping operations at Vetch’s coincide with plans for a new multibillion-rand waterfront development and construction of a promenade extension project at the Durban Point, and a separate operation to replenish other beaches that have been starved of sand because the city’s artificial sand-pumping system has fallen into disrepair.

Transnet has taken almost a decade to replace a crucial sand hopper facility and the municipality’s booster pumps have not been maintained, forcing the city to rely on a makeshift, erratic sand-replenishment scheme. There is too little sand on some beaches and "too much" piled up near the harbour mouth.

To the relief of the tourism industry, the city is belatedly spending R15m to pump sand on to five severely eroded central beaches using a temporary ship-to-shore pipeline.

At Vetch’s, however, where generations of local divers have learned to snorkel and scuba dive in the calm and sheltered sea environment, sand pumping has smothered large sections of the 500m underwater reef.

I CONTINUE TO HOPE THAT SOMEBODY WAKES UP AND DOES SOMETHING TO SAVE WHATEVER WE HAVE LEFT OF VETCH’S PIER.

Coastwatch KZN founder Di Dold says: "Vetch’s is almost totally shot now from being smothered in sand. It will come back to life, eventually, but the city doesn’t seem to care that an important social and economic asset is being destroyed."

Local diver and oceanographer Lisa Guastella says in the 1990s the fish species on Vetch’s reef were as good as that at Sodwana Bay. "Sadly, this is no longer the case. Vetch’s used to be the nursery school for local divers, but now there is mostly sand. I don’t know if anyone even dives it anymore, I haven’t bothered for a good few years."

The pier was built in the early 1860s, with stone quarried and hauled from Springfield Park. It was originally intended as a breakwater for Durban harbour, but construction was abandoned almost 150 years ago and the huge rocky structure has since become a perfect shelter for a variety of sea creatures.

Fisherman and paddle-skier Johnny Vassilaros, who helped establish the Save Vetch’s Association nearly a decade ago, says mountains of sand are piled up next to Vetch’s. "I could not even bring myself to walk amongst the destruction to take pictures, I was so distraught."

He says he understands the need for the emergency sand-pumping at Dairy Beach and North Beach as there is virtually no sand left there. "But the current excessive pumping on Vetch’s Beach, which is already oversupplied, is insane and serves no purpose in replenishing the lack of sand on the main central beaches."

Apart from smothering the reef and once-abundant beds of mussels, clouds of sand and sediment can also clog fish gills, causing several mobile marine species to leave the area.

Ethekwini municipality spokesman Mandla Nsele says studies are under way to investigate the effect of "the claims being made and we will reserve our right to comment until such a study has been completed".

The conditions of the environmental authorisation for the Point promenade extension stipulates that no stockpiling or spoiling is permitted within 50m of the high-water mark of the sea. Ntsele says the environmental authorisation conditions are observed, and a team oversees construction and monthly meetings cover concerns.

Vassilaros says the Save Vetch’s Association fought for a decade to protect the reef and surrounding beach but the city had "shown no concern or a hint of respect for the environment, systematically burying this reef under tons of sand for the last 10 years". He has records of appeals made to Durban coastal engineering senior manager Godfrey Vella and other city officials over several years, but little had changed. "All I am asking is for the city to take responsibility for its actions and to protect its environment," says Vassilaros.

"I believe the city has many extremely knowledgeable people at its disposal who, if they apply their minds, can assist the engineering department to pump responsibly to replenish our beachfront without the destruction seen in the last 10 years. I continue to hope that somebody wakes up very shortly and does something to save whatever we have left of Vetch’s Pier."

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