Poaching probed

A damning new report has blamed the national Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (DAFF), the Department of Public Works (DPW), and the South African Police Service (SAPS) for failing to effectively tackle poaching of abalone and West Coast rock lobster in the Western Cape.

With poaching of both species an ongoing concern in Hout Bay, the findings have provided strong insights into the challenges facing the local fishing industry. But while local fishers’ organisations have welcomed the findings, they remain sceptical that the recommendations stated in the report will be implemented.

The report, commissioned by the provincial legislature’s standing committee on economic opportunities, tourism and agriculture, is titled “The Impact of Abalone Poaching on Small-scale fishing communities”.

Shockingly, according to committee chairperson Beverley Schafer, on Wednesday June 7 the SAPS reported at a meeting of the provincial legislature’s standing committee on community safety, that there are no water wing units operating at national or provincial level due to a lack of resources.

“In a province which is uniquely bordered by two oceans, this is absolutely alarming and indicative of the ongoing abalone poaching which continues unabated,” Ms Schafer said.

The findings of the report, compiled in co-operation with leading academic experts working in the pisciculture sector and the provincial government, were obtained after public hearings were held on February 3 in Saldanha Bay, February 8 in Gansbaai and February 24 in Cape Town.

Among other key findings are that:

* The poverty in which many of the Western Cape’s fishing communities still live, has driven many individuals to illegal poaching as a means to put food on the table. As South Africa is the world’s third largest supplier of farmed abalone, with an estimated production of some 1450 metric tonnes in 2015, fishermen and women have capitalised on the illegal poaching and sale of this marine produce as a means to escape poverty and make easy money. As such, organised crime and gang-related activity have become involved in this illegal trade, bringing drug use and heightened violence to these communities. Illegal poaching is most prevalent among individuals without fishing rights or quotas which are supposed to be handed out by DAFF.

* Access to small-scale fishing rights and quotas by DAFF are overcomplicated and poorly enforced due to language barriers in legislation and a complete lack of understanding between the national department and fishermen. Furthermore, the department is ill-equipped to deal with the number of applications and seems completely out of touch with the needs of local fishermen.

* Abalone confiscated by DAFF is being sold below market value, resulting in the market becoming far less competitive. DAFF has failed to use the income accrued from confiscated abalone to effectively combat poaching.

* Currently, rock lobster population levels are at a mere 2% of what they used to be, and abalone populations currently sit at 20% of former levels, having decreased by an alarming 15% in the past five years alone. Recovery plans set developed jointly by DAFF’s, WWF-SA, and other fishery stakeholders, have been completely ignored, making it ecologically and economically unsustainable for future fishing as reserves will be depleted.

* The adoption of the Small-Scale Fisheries Policy in June 2012, which gives coastal communities preferential access to marine resources and incentivises community members to be the ears and eyes of their own reserves, has been slowly implemented. This policy was earmarked as a proactive and inclusive means to combat marine poaching, yet it seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Since 2005, the Harbour Steering Committee (HSC) of representatives from the national Department of Public Works, DAFF and National Treasury, which is responsible for the management and maintenance of 12 small boat harbours in the Western Cape, has severely neglected them, the report states.

“As these harbours have fallen into a state of disrepair, the fishing economy and the role of harbour in the tourism value chain in the Western Cape which relies on this infrastructure subsequently collapses,” Ms Schafer said.

In the report, DAFF is cited as failing to regulate and effectively co-ordinate their function to protect and conserve the Western Cape’s abalone and West Coast rock lobster stocks; follow the advice by the department’s scientific working groups to ensure the sustainability of marine resources; allocate small-scale fishing rights to existing fishermen who live in and along coastal towns; effectively monitor and protect South Africa’s vast coastline with its partners; and provide enough vessels to guard the coastline and monitor hot spots where poaching is rife.

The SAPS is blamed for not providing enough visible policing in coastal communities where poaching is rife; not implementing coastal marine units such as the water wings to directly tackle poaching; investigating and clamping down on police involvement in poaching syndicates; and not arresting and convicting syndicates and poachers more effectively.

The committee has consequently made a number of recommendations to the provincial government. These include:

* The Western Cape’s Department of Community Safety must investigate the drafting of provincial legislation to establish specialised police units specifically to combat poaching along coastlines, train community watch organisations, and, together with SAPS, re-establish a coordinated joint operation on a full time basis;

* The Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning must look at a dedicated Green Scorpions for abalone poaching through Cape Nature;

* A provincial prosecution body through the Biodiversity Crime Unit must be set up.

* The Department of Agriculture, through the skills game-changer and private partnerships, should look into skill development programmes and aquaculture learnerships for fishermen and women.

Responding to the report, Ikram “Lamie” Halim, of the Hout Bay Fishers Community Trust which represents three fishing co-operatives comprising hundreds of fishermen in the town, said he agreed that DAFF had complicated the rights and allocation processes.

“There are a lot of elements in these processes, but DAFF needs to simplify the language because they are dealing with people who are fishers,” he said

He added that fishers were scheduled to meet with DAFF representatives in Cape Town on Monday June 27.

“The department is intending to discuss fees for small-scale fishers, but we first want to know what resources will be allocated to each fishing community, and then co-operatives within that community.”

The Hout Bay Fishers Community Trust would also seek answers on why only one small-scale fisher from Hout Bay had made the provisional list for near-shore fishing rights of West Coast rock lobster.

“Before DAFF addresses fees and levies, we want answers to that question.”

Pedro Garcia, founder of the South African United Fishing Front, said the findings were “spot on”.

“It is tragic to see the diminishing levels of West Coast rock lobster. However, my fear is that not a lot will change. Fishing allocations of rock lobster are already causing divisive feelings in communities, and there are indications that abalone allocations will move along the same lines,” he said.

“The big fishing companies also continue to benefit from allocations because they are protected by the department (DAFF). So many reports have been commissioned in the past decade, and all conclusively point to corrupt elements within the department. Yet nothing happens. We can’t even say we are frustrated anymore. The situation is sick.”

Queries sent to DAFF, the Department of Public Works and police were not responded to at the time of going to press.