Fighting for the Right to Fish
by: Patrick Burnett, Inter Press Service/International Federation of Environmental Journalists
Cape Town – “When my belly is crying I must fill it. I can sit on the side of the road and beg for bread, but there is the bread right there,” says Hahn Goliath, a fisherman in the small village of Doring Bay on South Africa’s West Coast, as he points furiously at the Atlantic Ocean.
Goliath’s frustration is common amongst the estimated 30,000 subsistence fishermen in 148 fishing communities along South Africa’s 3,000 kilometres of coastline.
Largely excluded from the government’s fishing rights allocation process, they are able to catch fish – their daily bread – only on a recreational fishing permit, which makes it illegal to sell their catch. The situation has led to worsening coastal poverty.
Goliath linked the inability of fishers to earn a living from the sea to households breaking up, children dropping out of school and teenage pregnancies.
“At 14 children stand up to their parents and tell them they can’t tell them what to do anymore. And when their parents can’t provide them with food, how can they expect respect from their children?”
Subsistence fishers were hoping that a new government policy, the Draft Policy for the Allocation and Management of Medium-Term Subsistence Fishing Rights, would address their plight.
A task team representing subsistence fishers, which was appointed by South African environmental minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk in 2007, were involved in developing the policy. But the draft policy released in December 2008 has been rejected by the task team.
The deal breaker was that the policy says allocation of fishing rights to subsistence fishers is a challenge in that marine resources have already been allocated to commercial fisheries.
In the case of West Coast Rock Lobster, for example, which is the bread and butter of communities like Doring Bay (Doring is Afrikaans for “thorn”) on the West Coast, the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for the species in 2007/2008 was 2,571 tons, a 10 percent decline from the previous year.
This allocation, worth has been estimated at $34 million in value, was split between 1,754 tonnes to the offshore industry, 560 tonnes for the near shore and 257 tonnes for the recreational industry, according to Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) figures.
Fisheries consultancy Feike notes in A Guide to the South African Commercial Fishing Industry that the offshore fishery, which uses larger vessels in deeper waters, consists of 245 right holders – those allocated a quota out of the TAC – and sustains approximately 1,058 jobs.
Meanwhile, the near shore fishery, which still utilises basic vessels in shallow waters, supports 812 right holders and involves 3,248 jobs.
But the rub is that rights allocations were made to the offshore industry in 2006 and to the near shore sector in 2005 for a period of 10 years. The implication is that the only place where unallocated tonnage can be found for subsistence fishers is out of the the recreational allocation of 257 tonnes. The draft policy confirms this, saying that because West Coast Rock Lobster is over-subscribed, a reduction of the recreational catch by up to 50 percent will be necessary to accommodate subsistence fishers.
Fishing activists see this as a signal that subsistence fishers can expect the leftovers – 128.5 tons out of the recreational catch of 257 tons – rather than a system that would make space for them by taking tonnage out of the offshore sector and allocating that to the near shore, which supports more people.
Line fish species are also described in the draft policy as being “under tremendous pressure”, with no scope for additional catches using ski boats and other vessels.
Artisanal Fisheries Association chairman Andy Johnstone said: “It’s like giving someone a plate of food and then they find out there’s no food on the plate.”
He said the policy did not represent the interests of fishers. “It’s not our policy. The whole thing is we don’t want the quota system.”
The quota system allocates a specific amount of fish to individual fishers, but failure to secure a quota means exclusion from making a living from the sea. The policy makes clear there isn’t enough for all subsistence fishers.
Moeniba Isaacs, a senior researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, agrees that unless there are political moves to incorporate more of the offshore allocation in the near shore allocation, fishers will get the scraps.
She believes South Africa must look elsewhere to find a solution on how to address the needs of fishing communities.
She points to a co-operative system in Vietnam and other Southern African countries such as Mozambique and Angola, who have well-developed policies for subsistence fishers.
She argues for a hybrid commercial and communal system that would create an exclusive economic zone for small fishers around their communities.
A co-operative would market produce on their behalf and the money earned would return to the community, who would decide how to spend the revenue.
Johnstone advocates another system based on “co-ownership and co-responsibility” which would involve all roleplayers, including government, fishers and fishing communities.
Known as the Territorial User Rights Fishery and Co-management System (TURF), Johnstone said the framework was developed in the 1990s by artisinal fishers. It proposes that management conditions would vary from zone to zone.
Key to the approach would be that a defined group of fishers would have exclusive rights to a geographical inshore zone that would exclude commercial ventures.
To ensure sustainability, the system proposes a register of catches in specific zones and a partnership between local knowledge and science.
But, Isaacs said, alternatives “cannot happen without the political will”, which she argues is lacking both nationally and at regional level, where there is a lack of acceptance of issues like food security and local economic development.
Andre Share, the chief director of marine resource management in the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), maintains that the draft policy is not set in stone.
“Any member of the public, as well as other stakeholders, now have an opportunity to provide such comments on the draft policy before it is being finalised.”
Share said marine resources were “finite” and the department would have to select deserving fishers.
He said in any formalised system where access to finite resources was limited there would be difficulties, but the department would endeavour to ensure that bona fide subsistence fishers were accommodated.
Fishing sources, however, argue that government has backed itself into a corner when it comes to engaging with alternative models. In order to provide adequately for subsistence fishers they would have to take away from existing commercial fishing allocations and risk court action as a result.
Goliath, also the Doring Bay representative for Coastal Links, an organisation representing a network of fishing communities, believes quotas do not contribute to community development because they provide an income only to a small minority.
He calls for the community to take ownership of their rights. “If we all unite and put all of it together I can see a way, especially for the local economy.”
For Goliath any system must be about gaining an acknowledgement for subsistence fishers so that “our children have food and education so that we can win back the respect that we earn from our children. We are not here to become millionaires, but we want government to acknowledge us as fishermen. This is our manner of living.”