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Importance of freshwater systems and eels in the uMngeni and uThukela catchments, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: community perspectives.

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Globally, the conservation status of inland fishery resources and freshwater systems is vulnerable, threatening communities' livelihoods dependent on freshwater harvested species. Few studies have reported on the economic and cultural contributions of catadromous eels (Anguilla spp.) in southern Africa, particularly in South Africa. Beyond using freshwater systems for domestic purposes and meeting basic needs, people use rivers for socio-cultural purposes such as; cultural (cleansing), spirituality (healing), and religion (baptism). This study was undertaken to determine if human activities impact the African anguillids eel populations in the local communities of uThukela and uMngeni catchments and management areas in KwaZulu-Natal. A systematic review was conducted on global studies, with an emphasis on southern Africa, that report on the human perspective on the value of anguillid eels when in freshwater systems. In the southern African region, the available literature focused on the distribution of anguillid eels, habitat loss, and a report on the drastic decline of anguillid eels in KwaZulu-Natal's freshwaters where the Anguilla marmorata, A. mossambica, A. bengalensis, and A. bicolor occur. The studies from the northern hemisphere were rich in reports of eel harvesting (wild catches) and export, which was lacking in the southern African region. The systematic review showed a scarcity of knowledge regarding anguillid eels’ association with spirituality, spirituality, culture, and subsistence in South Africa. Secondly, people’s perceptions of the importance of eel species in freshwater fisheries were assessed using a questionnaire along water courses in the uMngeni and uThukela catchments and ecological management areas, KwaZulu-Natal. A total of 154 people were interviewed (66% males, 34% females); the majority of these participants were isiZulu-speaking, which contextualises the findings to the area of KwaZulu-Natal, uThukela and uMngeni management areas in particular. The fishing of eels was found in both catchments, with 74% (of the n = 102) being subsistence fishers (with only one female fisher), and 41% of these subsistence fishers specifically targeted eels. All the fishers that targeted eels depended on freshwater eel catches for income because of the relatively high demand and value. Some fishers caught and sold eels to traditional healers who used their products of medicinal products for different uses. Thirdly, the use of freshwater eels (Anguilla spp.) was assessed beyond harvesting them to sell or consume. In particular, using a questionnaire, the spiritual and cultural values of African freshwater eels and their associated freshwater environment in the uMngeni and uThukela catchments were investigated. A total of 154 people from different communities were interviewed along these river systems during 2021 and 2022. In the different communities within catchments, participants reported a number of different beliefs associated with eels and rivers. The responses showed that people valued clean rivers for various cultural, religious, and recreational activities. Some valued eels as they were associated with their beliefs. People who use freshwater for their respective cultural and spiritual, fishing, and domestic purposes voiced a considerable challenge in using freshwater systems, water pollution and water contamination from industrial waste or eutrophication from agricultural waste. Without community participation, there is no guaranteed sustainability of the water resources for the spiritual and cultural values of freshwater eels and freshwater systems. Community leaders and water management bodies must engage with communities in identifying important river uses (domestic, fisheries), and their contribution to spiritual and cultural practices. This will ensure long-term sustainable use and protection of inland water and fisheries resources associated with cultural and spiritual beliefs in KwaZulu-Natal. Freshwater eels hold a crucial aspect in the lives of traditional healers, some local fishers, and the general public, those that have knowledge of the use of these species. The study has shown that these species are still under-studied in KwaZulu-Natal, and most people have little understanding of the economic and cultural values, leading to less appreciation of these species by most people, mostly nonfishers.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.