SPCA Pioneers Research Into the Impact of Fireworks on Marine Wildlife

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In a South African first, the Cape of Good Hope SPCA commissioned a short-term study of the impacts of fireworks on marine species.  This followed the dismissal of our High Court application to interdict a New Year’s Fireworks display from taking place at V&A Waterfront at midnight on 31st December 2023.

The reasons for the dismissal as handed down by His Lordship, Judge LG Nuku, included that evidence presented by the SPCA regarding the reasonable apprehension of harm due to fireworks was deemed inadequate, as it relied on hearsay reports.  The Judge also found that we were entitled to the shield provided by section 32 (2) of NEMA against costs given that the SPCA had approached the court out of concern for the environment and the animals and that we had done so as a last resort. For that reason, we were not held responsible for the costs of the respondents in the matter. 

The results of the study conducted by Sea Search confirm what we’ve always known to be true and we now hold scientific research that supports our position of animal suffering as a result of firework activity. 

The study indicates that both Hartlaub’s gulls and Cape fur seals (subjects of the study) exhibited a strong behavioural response to the firework display, including increased vocal behaviour and a shift from sleeping to vigilant and locomotive behaviour.

Additionally, the document emphasises that the rare and impulsive nature of fireworks had a clear short-term effect on the behaviour of the studied species, potentially leading to fear, anticipatory anxiety, and increased stress responses. The study further found that the effects of noise on protected species, (particularly those that breed on Robben Island may be long-lasting and result in negative impacts on endangered species populations. 

Key Quotes From the Study
  • “Cape fur seals called at a rate of 11.2 ± 21.1 calls per minute, which increased to 77.1 ± 41.7 calls per minute during the firework display, indicating a considerable increase in call production (Figure 4). For Hartlaub’s gulls, the call production rate increased from 4.0 ± 6.0 calls per minute to 17.3 ± 15.3 calls per minute during the firework display (Figure 4).”
  • ” …. the two species included in this study showed strong behavioural responses to the firework display. Both species considerably increased their vocal production rate during this period, which has previously been described as an increased stress response in other species (Weigland & McChesney, 2008; Esch et al., 2009). “
  • “There was a clear vocal response to the firework display, likely indicating disturbance. Cape fur seals increased the rate of vocalisations, mostly “barks”, which are used by males for mating-associated behaviour, territorial defence, and agonistic interactions (Martin et al., 2022a). “

The V&A Waterfront is home to several threatened and globally endangered marine and coastal species, and the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 prohibits the harassment of all listed protected or vulnerable species, unless for scientific, conservation, or management purposes. Harassment is defined as human activity that triggers behavioural alterations in wild animals, which can result in increased energy use or injury, (Webster & Young, 1997). This includes anthropogenic noise disturbance when there are indications that an animal has heard a sound or when their behaviour is altered (Bowles, 1995; Cavanagh, 2000; Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972). The study found that fireworks constitute harassment by definition. 

In conclusion, the study recommends that fireworks be eliminated along the coastlines and near breeding colonies, roosting sites, and protected areas. This recommendation is made in consideration of the presence of sensitive and/or endangered species in the area and the potential impacts of fireworks on their behaviour and welfare.

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