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End of the line for fisher folk

 The Big Issue South Africa 24 October 2019

Small-scale fishermen in South Africa got the short end of the rod under the current fishing quota system, which they argue gives fishing rights to a select few and leaves entire fishing families with no food on the table, leading many to resort to poaching. Yet keeping fishing communities in business whilst also protecting shrinking inshore fish stocks, is a tricky business. The South African government’s new small-scale fishing policy is aimed at fixing the system so everyone gets a piece of the pie, but already there are holes in the catch-all net. (1822 Words) - By Leanne Farish


BI SA_End of the line for fisher folk 1

Fishermen in Kalk Bay, Cape Town.Credit: Jac Kritzinger/The Big Issue South Africa

BI SA_End of the line for fisher folk 2

Fishermen in Kalk Bay, Cape Town.Credit: Jac Kritzinger/The Big Issue South Africa

BI SA_End of the line for fisher folk 3

Fishermen in Kalk Bay, Cape Town.Credit: Jac Kritzinger/The Big Issue South Africa

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Fishermen in Kalk Bay, Cape Town.Credit: Jac Kritzinger/The Big Issue South Africa

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Fishermen in Kalk Bay, Cape Town.Credit: Jac Kritzinger/The Big Issue South Africa

From the cold, wild Atlantic of the West Coast to the warmer waters that run along our lush Eastern Coast, South Africa's coastline is as varied as it is beautiful. But one thing mandatory in every coastal village (known as a Dorpie in Afrikaans) is a bevy of local fishermen. They know every inch of every rock and how to read the water to know where the fish will be biting - a trick they learnt from their grandparents, who learnt it from their grandparents. They are classified as small-scale traditional artisanal fishermen, and fishing in this way is the mainstay of their communities.

But times have changed since the fishing communities dotting the coastline survived on their catch. Post 1994, government made an effort to include those previously left out of the ocean's bounty and to protect depleted and at-risk fish stocks by introducing a new fishing quota system. However, there's been an endless stream of complaints and protests by small-scale fishermen who claim they're still being done in. Simply put: many fisher folk reckon the system favours the goliath fishing companies and a few privileged locals sucking the ocean dry while they have to battle each other for the dregs.

Six years ago, an NGO working with artisanal fishing communities challenged the quota system in court. They won and government was ordered to draw up a new quota policy, one that would include small-scale fishermen. The new policy is finally in its draft form, and already it's at the centre of a hot debate.

Quota system quandary

In contrast to claims that big fishing companies are pillaging our oceans, John Duncan of the World Wide Fund For Nature's (WWF) Sustainable Fisheries Programme says South Africa's offshore fish stocks - where the big trawlers get their haul - are "pretty well managed and relatively healthy or recovering".

Where the problems lie, he says, is the inshore fish stocks where small-scale fishermen cast their nets. "It's mainly because there are too many people who can access them," Duncan explains. Because of this, poaching is also a serious problem.

Donovan van der Heyden, chairman of the Hout Bay Artisanal Fishers Association and a third generation small-scale artisanal fishermen from Hangberg, insists the current quota model is directly to blame for small-scale poaching.

"The quota system left a lot of the fishermen without food on the table, hence the whole poaching industry also became worse because most of these guys, all they knew was how to fish. So that's what they've resorted to: fishing illegally," he says.

Naseegh Jaffer, director of Masifundise, an NGO which has been working with fishing communities for the past 12 years, says the current quota system excludes artisanal small-scale fishermen because they don't fit into a purely commercial category.

"Artisanal fishing is when you go out to sea and catch your fish. You put some aside for your own consumption. You give two or three fish to your neighbours, who also need food to eat. The rest you sell in order to make money."

Artisanal fishing, according to Jaffer, is about tradition, livelihoods and food security as much as it is about making money.

The limited number of rights for small-scale, inshore fishing has also created tension in communities where several men or women in a family may be fishers.

"The quota policy says only one person in a household can have a fishing right. So, if there's a single quota and we must all apply for that quota, I will compete against my brother who will also compete against my father," explains Jaffer.

"The department's first mistake was to bring out quotas that would only empower a few fishers," agrees Van der Heyden. "It was far from bringing about equity or equitable resource distribution, because all they did was separate our communities and cause more division, ultimately resulting in families turning against each other, neighbours turning against each other."

Another obvious flaw in the current quota system is that fishing rights are allocated per fishery. This means if a fisherman is allocated a west coast rock lobster right, he cannot also be allocated a line fish right. The problem here is that artisanal fishermen depend on the ocean for their livelihoods all year round. So during the months that west coast rock lobster season is closed, they aren't legally allowed to fish for something else and that, quite simply, means families don't eat.

Bloated bureaucracy

Government's love for bloated bureaucracy also didn't bypass the quota system which, according to Jaffer, has placed fishing permits out of reach for many artisanal fishermen.

"In order to apply for a quota you have to have a business plan and you have to have tax clearances," he explains. "An artisanal fisher is somebody who probably only had about three or four years of schooling. They can hardly read or write. The notion of a business plan is foreign to them."

And even when an artisanal fisherman does manage to get a fishing right, Jaffer says semi-literate fishermen are simply unable to comply with some of the permit conditions, such as submitting annual performance reports.

In 2005 Jaffer's NGO Masifundise took up the fishermen's fight in court and argued that the quota system excludes artisanal fishers. In 2007 the Equality Court ruled in their favour and ordered a new small-scale fishing policy - one that properly includes artisanal fishers - be drawn up. But the new draft policy is already in deep waters.

Radical changes

The new draft policy proposes radical changes to the way small-scale and inshore fishing is managed. The three key changes are: fishing rights will be allocated to community collectives instead of individuals; fishermen will be allowed to harvest a "basket" of different species instead of just one; and a zone of the sea will be set aside exclusively for small-scale fishermen.

"The draft says that fishing rights will be given to fishing communities, to a collective. In an area like Paternoster, for instance, we know there are 80 or 100 fishers. So those 100 fishers will be identified, they will all form a legal entity, and the fishing right will go to that entity," explains Jaffer. In this way, all of the fishermen will collectively hold the right to fish, and will not compete against each other for individual quotas.

Allocating rights that allow for the harvest of a "basket" of different species means fishermen will be able to fish all year round. "Whatever harvestable fish or species is found in this exclusive zone, that community will have access to catch or harvest it any time during the year," says Jaffer.

He adds that there will be some controls in place to ensure the resources are sustained and protected. Importantly, large-scale commercial fishing will not be permitted in those inshore zones set aside exclusively for small-scale fishers.

Jaffer reckons awarding fishing rights to community collectives instead of individuals will greatly improve the lives of artisanal fishers. For one, a collective will be able to offer fishermen benefits that they currently do without, such as medical aid and unemployment insurance.

He also believes that once artisanal fishers are recognised and included, the poaching threatening inshore fish stocks will decline. "Because people are dependent on the ocean to catch fish and to make a living, illegal fishing happens," says Jaffer. "We believe this new system will go a long way to reducing illegal fishing and community based poaching."

A 'non-negotiable pie'

It all sounds good in theory, but the draft policy has been met by vehement criticism.

"My view, quite simply, is that, if passed, it will be the most devastating and destructive policy that South Africa will ever adopt in the history of fisheries management," says Shaheen Moolla, managing director of Feike Natural Resource Management Advisers.

His main criticism is that, by giving an entire community collective a fishing right, there will be substantially more people sharing the same amount of fish.

"There's only so much fish available; this pie is a non-negotiable pie. You can't invent more fish," he argues.

The effects, according to Moolla, will be disastrous. He believes those small-scale fishermen currently holding rights will be reduced to poverty, while new rights holders will remain confined to poverty.

Jaffer counters that some small-scale rights holders will simply have to relinquish their rights so new fishermen can be accommodated. "If you have been discriminated against, then that has to be corrected. You have to be brought in. And if the pie is only so big, then some of those people within that pie need to step out, or need to take a smaller cut, in order to allow for new people to come in," he insists.

Moolla also slams the new draft policy for being based on an unrealistic ideal of collective fishing communities which no longer exists. In reality, he says, many fishing communities are fractured.

"Some of the basic notions underpinning the small-scale fishers policy - community-based fishing quotas and the concept of co-operative-based sharing of quota - those are myths and romanticised notions that hark back to how line fishing was done in the 15th,16th and 17th centuries," he argues.

Duncan also believes the draft policy may be too idealistic: "The concepts behind the policy are quite novel and quite exciting in many ways, but the realities and the challenges of actually implementing it may be insurmountable."

Challenges ahead

Jaffer himself is aware that challenges lie ahead. "We're not saying this new small-scale policy is going to solve all problems," he says, "but I think it is modelled in a different way that allows you to reshape and to remould and panel beat [the system to adapt to different situations]."

The draft policy's period for public comment recently came to a close. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is now reviewing comments, and it is estimated the finalised policy will be ready for implementation by April 2012. The department declined to respond to the repeated requests for comment on the draft policy and a response to the criticisms raised.

"What we've lobbied for is fishing rights that empower all of the traditional fishers and empowers the community in terms of poverty reduction," says Van der Heyden. "Whether the new policy will succeed in recognising artisanal fishers' historical rights, while also ensuring that their future is an economically stable one and protecting fish stocks, remains to be seen."

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