Big business encroaches on Hangberg fishers

A man who has spent many years fighting for the rights of fishers says the state’s quota system is fundamentally flawed and is fuelling the poaching scourge in Hout Bay.

Fishing rights verification and allocation processes, poor community engagement by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the social ills blighting Hangberg are some of the other reasons poaching is such a problem, says Donovan van der Heyden, a long-time community fishers representative who has traced the rise of poaching and illegal fishing in Hout Bay.

Last month, the Sentinel reported on the so-called abalone graveyards near Seal Island, and how despite the efforts of law enforcement agencies, poaching of the resource was still rife in the area (“The price of poaching,” Sentinel, May 5).

And recently, DAFF suspended a member of its fishing rights allocation process (FRAP), following a complaint it said could amount to corruption.

This came after the Hawks confiscated a laptop and cellphone from the unnamed member of FRAP.

According to reports, DAFF had hired fishing consultant Shaheen Moolla, who was instrumental in the process of granting new fishing rights, for the FRAP process. While admitting that he had been questioned by the Hawks, he would not comment on whether he had been suspended.

Small-scale fishers have disagreed with Mr Moolla’s appointment, saying his role was a conflict of interest as he had been involved in fishing deals they found questionable.

For more than a decade, Mr Van der Heyden has worked tirelessly to include Hangberg fishers in departmental policy and planning. But he said he had looked on, at times almost helplessly, as processes had been hijacked by opportunists and exploited by “devious” marketers, while endless delays had frustrated the fishing community. He said fishers had betrayed themselves at times by letting “corruptible people” with their own agendas slip into leadership and allowing non-fishers to be verified as fishers.

According to a veteran fisher interviewed by the Sentinel this week, several companies had been registered and de-registered over the years.

Mr Van der Heyden said that when he got involved in the official process 12 years ago attempts had been made to find long-term solutions to the issue of traditional fishing rights.

“As the Small Scale Traditional Fishers Policy was being thrashed out, only a few small scale fishers per area were granted interim relief status, but this has dragged on for years,” Mr Van der Heyden said.

Amid this “chaos”, he said, opportunists had slipped through the back door to exploit the fishing rights process intended for the entire fishing community.

Mr Van der Heyden said he had always been opposed to fishing quotas, as they benefited individuals and could be sold to anyone, be it a non-fisher, foreigner or business, which left resources open to exploitation by people only seeking profit, and who had never derived their livelihood from the sea.

The verification process was also problematic and had led to situations where a handful of people were left to verify an entire fishing community of more than 1 000 people.

He said DAFF had a problem implementing policy at community level. “Just when you think we have some momentum in getting things right, DAFF will replace staff. Some of the staff are not well trained in community engagement, neither do they understand our community. Because of the stalled processes, people have very little trust left. People are tired of talking.”

Coupled with this, he said, was that it was very apparent that “big business” controlled the industry.

“Often you will see studies of available marine resources being commissioned by DAFF, but these are sponsored by the big fishing companies. It is clear these businesses have a hold over the department.”

Mr Van der Heyden said that when he started engaging with DAFF, illegal harvesting of abalone and West Coast rock lobster had been apparent, “but not nearly as big as it is now”. “To me, the mistake that was made was to start issuing quotas. Quotas have divided our community,” he said, claiming they had benefited individuals instead of fostering collective community development.

“A quantum that could serve five fishers is now going to one person. This is just an example, since a bigger quantum can benefit even more.”

In the mid-2000s, the formation of a fishing co-operative, he said, had promised much as it had encouraged the community to pull together.

“Unfortunately many of the guys who took charge of the co-operative had no business knowledge in the industry but were getting a lot of money.

“Many were basically just interested in getting rich quickly and didn’t care who they had to trample over. Today, I see the same thing; not much has changed, due to a lack of leadership accountability and transparency.”

Furthermore, he said, some directors exploited the fact that traditional fishers trusted them to look after their interests.

“We are talking about many people in their old age, people that needed to get some immediate benefits, while their families’ future well-being should have been prioritised, specifically around education and development, not meagre had-outs.”

It was in this climate that poaching and illegal fishing gained traction. However, he said, there was also no doubt that social ills and poverty in Hangberg were placing additional pressure on marine resources.

“If you look at the drug situation and the high levels of unemployment, poaching or illegal fishing is the quickest way to make money. Many fish factories have closed already, and because fishing quantums have been reduced, there is the constant threat the big business will close more factories.”

Mr Van der Heyden said while he appreciated that environmentalists were concerned about diminishing ocean resources, they also needed to consider that human beings were part of the ecological equation.

“If you change the way someone has traditionally lived off the ocean, it also changes the dynamics of their respectful relationship to the environment. People are now seeing things in a very materialistic way.

“Because of the drug and unemployment situation, we are getting a lot of early school drop-outs.

“They see the extravagant lifestyles of poachers, and they want that for themselves. It all looks very glamorous to youngsters.”

Moenieba Isaacs, an associate professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, has worked extensively with communities in South Africa to find policy solutions to the fishing rights issue.

“Most of our fishers are fishing for the export market. Unfortunately the thinking is that our fishers can only catch fish, and can’t be involved in the processing and marketing aspect, which are being handled by the big fishing companies,” she said.

“The money that is being made should be coming back to the community, but what little is being made is coming to the quota holders. These individual quota-holders have become the mainstream.”

Since Monday May 8, the Sentinel has sent repeated requests for comment to several DAFF officials, but by the time this edition went to print we had still not received a response.