Lobster catches curbed

Ikram Lamie Halim.

Hundreds of small-scale fishers in Hout Bay are shocked by a call to suspend all fishing rights of West Coast Rock Lobster, saying they were under the impression the environmental groups demanding this measure were supposed to represent their interests.

Representatives of the fishers also feel a suggestion by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) South Africa, Masifundise Development Trust and South African United Fishers Front (SAUFF) to compensate them for a shorter fishing season with money obtained from a R750 million restitution order is “short-sighted”.

The calls were made by the three organisations in a joint statement two weeks ago, but were “deeply concerning” to leaders of the Hout Bay Fishers Community Trust which represents three fishing cooperatives comprising hundreds of fishermen in the town.

Acknowledging that rock lobster populations were severely depleted – only two percent of pre-fishing levels remain – Ikram “Lamie” Halim of the trust said what surprised him most about the statements was that this issue had seemingly been resolved for the current season.

“Last year we attended a meeting in which the research on declining numbers was discussed. The Masifundise Development Trust was at that meeting. Our normal season is from November 15 to June 30, but they wanted to shorten it to three months,” he said.

“The problem with that is from February to June catching lobster is difficult, so you need as much time as possible. When we explained this to Craig Smith of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, we were told that the order came from a higher authority. We were never told who that is.”

The fishers were told that a recovery plan needed to be put in place, and that would entail the total allowable catch would need to be cut by 35 percent across the board.

“We then argued that for the big commercial companies, the cut would be 185 tons a season – something they would hardly feel. But small-scale fishers like us will definitely feel the difference.

“This recovery plan would take us to 60kg a person, and obviously we couldn’t sustain our livelihoods. When we raised this, we were asked to come up with recommendations. These included that the season should not be shortened; we have to go out much further than we used to; and it is taking us longer to catch lobster because of the decline in numbers.”

However, no response to these recommendations was received, Mr Halim said.

“Then there was a second meeting in November and to our absolute surprise, we were told that everything would stay the same for the current season. Nothing would change. It was good news, but we were surprised.

“Some people were not happy though, saying that all the money that had been spent on research had been for nothing. In my opinion, I think that is the real reason that this statement has been released now. I think they are trying to justify the money that was spent on research. They say they have consulted all stakeholders, but in Hout Bay we never agreed to any of this.”

He said groups like Masifundise claimed to be representing fishers, but they held their own meetings behind closed doors.

The restitution figure referred to by the organisations relates to the conviction of former Hout Bay Fishing Industries chairman and managing director Arnold Bengis, jailed in the US for smuggling rock lobster and toothfish into America.

As a result, the South African government was awarded R750 million by a US court in 2013. This figure was initially reported as R291 million.

But the Hout Bay Fishers Community Trust remains sceptical.

“This is the first time we have heard about this restitution money, though of course we now knew about the illegal export of rock lobster. Many residents of Hangberg used to load containers full of lobster tails in the middle of the night, which were then loaded onto boats bound for the US,” Mr Halim said.

“They thought they were just doing a job. We used to speak to community members, and they told us that they were always receiving bonuses. They were always walking around with envelopes of money. Then this man Bengis left, and the next thing we heard he was arrested. I feel our people were exploited.”

He found irony in the fact that South Africa’s government labelled fishers who caught more than their quota “poachers”, but there were calls to compensate them with money from a convicted criminal.

“To be honest, I don’t think we will see a cent of this money, but even if we do, it won’t be enough. There are 30 fishing communities in the Western Cape, and that money wouldn’t compensate everyone. If they are planning to suspend fishing for five years, the money won’t even cover the first year.

“These are very poor people in our community, and they are already talking about this money. But they are not seeing the bigger picture. Unfortunately they are desperate so they want money now.”

Pavitray Pillay, programme manager of the WWF Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative, told the Sentinel stakeholders had been informed repeatedly about the possibility of suspending fishing.

“Since 2015, all the other issues, apart from the item on closing the fishery for a limited time and the government-funded compensation, have been discussed multiple times in the stakeholder meetings, which all West Coast Rock Lobster rights holders and interested parties were invited to attend,” he said.

“In addition to the usual scientific and management working group meetings, WWF-SA and DAFF held multiple stakeholder meetings to jointly develop a recovery plan for the fishery. Notice for these meetings were widely circulated to rights holders. WWF-SA further released a press release in late July 2016 announcing that the co-developed recovery plan had been finalised.

“Then, on November 18, very shortly after the minister made the surprising decision to ignore his own department’s scientific recommendations and the agreed-upon recovery plan, WWF-SA issued a further statement. In the interim, WWF-SA has also made several announcements regarding the development of a SASSI red-listing for WCRL and has invited public comment through multiple forums. Thus, this issue has been on the table for some time and there has been substantial coverage of it.”

She added that the joint statement issued was clear that the Bengis funds should ideally be used to help recover the West Coast Rock Lobster resource, and would therefore not cover all the additional funds required.

Asked whether the department had responded to the recommendations, she said it was “particularly troubling” that it had not.

“We have released two press statements, launched a media campaign, and, through the department’s own processes, formally objected to the decisions taken in regards to the West Coast Rock Lobster fishery since late November 2016. We would welcome a response from the department and hope that the department will immediately take steps to re-establish its collaborative work with fishery stakeholders to address the many challenges facing this fishery.”

Masifundise spokesperson Nosipho Singiswa said the organisation supported the suspension call as it was in line with its grievances that the organisation, together with Coastal Links South Africa, tabled to DAFF’s portfolio committee last year.

“Ours is a call for the department not to allocate any further rights until there is a proper management plan and rights are allocated equitably to all stakeholders. This we hope will take place for the 2017/2018 allocation. We would like to note that, for us, this is not a call for the department to close the current lobster season as the season is already in motion and we are sensitive to the fact that fishers have to make a living.”

Ms Singiswa said WFF prepared the draft statement, which was endorsed by Masifundise. “We added our key points regarding the issue. The request for compensation came from SAUFF.”

SAUFF chairperson Pedro Garcia said everyone was aware rock lobster numbers were in decline.

“What we have made clear is that we are only in favour of suspension if there is compensation for fishers. People cannot lose out,” he said.

“We believe that this would be a win-win situation, because if after five years the rock lobster numbers are replenished, all fishers will benefit. However, our condition is that fishers have to be compensated during the compensation period.”

When the Bengis restitution order was first made known, a figure of R291 million was reported.

Ms Pillay explained that through a consultative process with relevant experts that worked on this case, “we were informed that the restitution order was for R750 million”.

“However we are following up with relevant parties on this.”

Queries sent to DAFF spokesperson, Bomikazi Molapo had not been responded to at the time of going to press.