Rocky road to fair fishing

The Hout Bay fishing community believes WWF-SAs court challenge will not solve the problem of West Coast rock lobster sustainability.

Hout Bay fishers fear a court battle between wildlife activists and the state over West Coast rock lobster stocks could lead to their quotas getting cut and more poaching as a result.

The World Wildlife Fund-SA (WWF-SA) has taken the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to court, accusing it of mismanaging the country’s West Coast rock lobster resources.

But local fishers fear the case will leave them the ultimate losers because if it results in further cuts to their quotas, they’ll battle to survive and there will be a surge in poaching.

WWF-SA claims Daff threatened the sustainability of the species by setting the 2017/18 total allowable catch (TAC) quota at 1 924 tons, more than double the 790 tons recommended by a panel of experts, including DAFF’s own scientists, outside scientific experts, industry participants and NGOs.

TAC includes commercial fishing (offshore), commercial fishing (nearshore), recreational fishing, small-scale fishing (interim relief), small-scale fishing (nearshore), small-scale fishing (offshore) and foreign fishing.

According to the WWF-SA, in 2011, DAFF committed to managing the resource to achieve a 35% increase from its current levels by 2021, but it has subsequently reneged on these commitments and set unsustainable TACs in 2013, 2016 and 2017, against the advice of independent experts and its own scientists.

WWF-SA chief executive Dr Morne du Plessis said: “Given the critical state of the resource, and having exhausted all other options for engagement, WWF has been forced to approach the courts to challenge DAFF’s mismanagement of this important marine resource.

“History has shown that short-sighted fisheries’ management will only lead to the destruction of both the resources and the communities that depend on them.”

WWF-SA approached the Cape High Court on Wednesday June 27, and the motion is scheduled to be heard on Wednesday August 22.

Daff responded by accusing WWF-SA of a “subterfuge designed to scupper the fisheries transformation agenda”.

The department said it had to weigh up “socially denuded” scientific advice against a balance between scientific opinions and socio-economic realities.

“A lopsided biological and scientific consideration by WWF and other scientists as a silver bullet in the South African context may harm the sector significantly,” Daff spokesperson Khaye Nkwanayana said.

“In this case, the risk in government, if it were to fall for the WWF push, would be to blunt diversification and leave the sector as an exclusive reserve for white companies, including foreign fisheries companies, while its people remain paupers. We are not prepared to travel that route.”

Despite WWF-SA accusing Daff of setting too high a catch limit, small fishing communities have already complained that that figure is too low for them to earn a living.

Of the 235 tons of West Coast rock lobster allocated to small-scale fishers in fishing communities around the Western Cape, only 10 tons were allocated to Hout Bay fishers, who fall under the interim-relief sector.

Interim relief status was bestowed on small-scale fishers in 2007. It allows them short-term permits of between four and eight months, and it was intended to be a temporary solution for fishers who did not benefit from long-term rights established by the government.

Ikram “Lamie” Halim, of the Hout Bay Fishers Community Trust, said the court case would not solve the question of sustainability.

“If the TAC is cut further, I have no doubt there will be more poaching because people will have no other alternative to make money,” he said.

“We have engaged with both Daff and the WWF repeatedly and told them that we would accept a cut, but only if the commercial-fishing companies no longer use the trap system. The trap system involves 100kg cages being placed at intervals on the ocean floor. These destroy the coral, which is the rock lobster’s natural habitat. The destruction interferes with their breeding patterns,” Mr Halim said.

“Colleagues have also suggested to the department that they suspend all fishing for five years, and find other ways to find work for fishers during that time. They listen to us, but they never take any action.”

For generations, traditional fishers had sustained rock lobster populations, yet their expertise was seldom called upon, he said.

“Daff now allocates seasons when people may fish, but that system simply doesn’t work. In the old days, fishers used to go out to test when the crayfish was ready. If it was too small, everyone would return to their homes. Now, we have a seasonal process that does not factor in when the fish is ready or not.”

Despite Daff’s statement that it wants to support small fishing communities, Mr Halim is not convinced.

“We can’t support Daff or the WWF in this court case. The small-scale fishing policy was supposed to have been in place years ago, but nothing has been done.

“The department is also not allowing any new entrants into the fishing sector, so how can they say they are supporting us? And a lot of people think the WWF is doing us a favour by addressing depleting crayfish numbers, but they also do not listen to us.

“WWF also gets most of its funding from the big fishing companies, whose interests are being looked after. One fishing company’s allocation is bigger than that of all the Western Cape fishing communities combined.”

The fishers make this claim, they say, because when presentations are made to them by WWF-SA the logos of big fishing companies feature on the documents.

In response to these allegations, Andrea Weiss, spokesperson for WWF-SA, said: “We work with a broad range of players the in interests of sustainable use,” and referred the Sentinel to a broader press statement relating to their court action.

Donovan van der Heyden, a Hout Bay fishers’ representative who has been part of the small-scale process, shared Mr Halim’s sentiments.

“Currently the traditional Hout Bay fishing grounds are a marine protected area, in which people are not allowed to fish. What I would like to see is a community protected area, which the community, together with the department and experts, will manage, so that sustainable fishing methods can be practised,” he said.

“If the WWF succeeds in its court case, Daff will be forced to use shortcuts in the allocation process. But it is never the big fishing companies that are penalised, it’s the small fishing community. The result will be even more poaching in the area, at a level we’ve never seen before.”

He said that every time communities’ had quotas cut, poaching grew and with it came new criminal elements and opportunists. Daff wanted to appear sympathetic to the plight of fishers, but the reality was far different, he said.

“The economic consideration is not afforded to small-scale fishers, but skewed towards the big fishing companies.”