Mixing work and play at the Border Open Spearfishing competition 2019
The Border Open spearfishing competition is a highlight in many spearfishers calendar. The event takes place annually at Hole in the Wall hotel in the Transkei, Eastern Cape. A maximum of 40 divers are allowed to participate, making it highly competitive with great prizes. Personally, I have participated in the competition in 2015 and 2016, but this year however I was not only attending to compete - but also to collect data for my research. The project aims to assess the biology of the Cape Knifejaw (Oplegnathus conwayi). Collecting Cape Knifejaw specimens for this project has proven troublesome as they are only practically attainable through spearfishing. I have been collecting specimens monthly in the warm-temperate Kenton-on-Sea area, but desperately need samples from the sub-tropical biogeographic zone (East London – Kosi Bay). Collecting data in the regions closest to you can prove easy due to short trips field when the weather permits, however sampling in regions further afield (such as the Transkei) can be particularly difficult and costly.
When working on a species that is not easily caught using traditional scientific methods (e.g. line fishing or seine netting), the use of citizen science and the recreational sector may be essential for success. This is where the idea of using the Border Open spearfishing competition to collect sub-tropical specimens for my research originated. Using citizens to help collect data not only saves scientists a great deal of time and money, it also allows scientists to engage with and educate the community through practical demonstrations and one-on-one conversations.
The competition took place on the 15th of June 2019, with a total of 25 competitors diving on the day. The night before the competition, all the spearfishers were briefed, after which I presented my research work to the competitors. The intention was not only to give them a brief understanding of what I am doing and why, but also to instruct them on how to preserve the integrity of the biological samples they collected by not eviscerating the Cape Knifejaw before I could process them. The conditions were ideal with 15 meters visibility, very little swell and no wind. All the divers weighed in fish, with 21 Cape Knifejaw being speared. At the weigh-in, I collected the Cape Knifejaw and dissected them during the weigh-in - which I found to be excellent for promoting interest in what we were doing. This allowed intrigued spearfishers and members of the public to ask questions and see for themselves how a biological dissection was conducted. I was completely taken aback by the multiple questions that were asked and the curiosity of various individuals!
Overall the field trip was a great success - not only for collecting my data but also for providing the spearfishing community with insight into why and how recreational catch limits and size limits are created. This transparency and communication stands to promote good relationships between the academic community and the South African spearfishing community. The spearfishing community is of particular importance due to the lack of biological data on the majority of species targeted by this sector. The use of these events can be extremely valuable to both the scientific and recreational communities. We as scientists often underestimate their potential value and need to take advantage of every opportunity.
Lastly a big thank you to all the competitors for their help and a special thanks to Kerry van der Walt and Dave Philips for helping with the biologicals and Terence Bellingan for the photos.