Activists and fishing groups are at odds with the department over 'unsustainable' catch allowances.
The leader of the Green Party of South Africa, Judith Sole, is heading back to the Western Cape High Court on a mission to try to prevent the extinction of the West Coast rock lobster.
In her sights are Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson and department officials, whom she believes have ignored scientific information that the total allowable catch should be reduced for the 2012-2013 fishing season. Department spokesperson Lionel Adendorf has rejected the allegation that Joemat-Pettersson ordered the reduction reversed.
Sole said this week that her application over the festive season for an urgent court interdict on commercial rock lobster fishing was unsuccessful as her legal documents had gone missing "somewhere in the bowels of the high court". As a result, she said, the relevant documents had not been available in the court file when the matter was heard after Christmas.
"We are preparing a new application. The situation is very critical because international standards say that it is dangerous to fish a resource once it is below 20% of pristine. Our West Coast rock lobster is at an average of 3.1% of pristine and in some areas at 1.8% of pristine," said Sole. "If we do nothing, we believe we are looking at commercial extinction of the resource and, after that, presumably actual extinction."
Sole said her papers will probably be filed in court next week.
"If we do not get this court case heard and our order granted very soon, the quota holders may have fished over the tipping point, if we are not over the tipping point already. Then there would be nothing effective left to talk about – even in court."
Joemat-Pettersson has been accused by the Democratic Alliance's spokesperson on fisheries, Pieter van Dalen, and industry specialist Shaheen Moolla of instructing her department to impose the same catch quota for rock lobster as last year, of about 2425 tonnes.
Adendorf said Joemat-Pettersson had not had anything to do with the decision making on the total allowable catch for the lobster and urged those who were alleging that she had been favouring any industry players to produce evidence.
"The department would like to encourage all those aggrieved by decisions made by those delegated to make them to feel free to appeal to the minister," he said.
The Marine Living Resources Act designates the minister as the appeals authority, said Adendorf.
"The minister did not delegate a person to set the total allowable catch. She designated an office to handle the matter and she did not have a say in the setting of the total allowable catch for West Coast rock lobster."
Many local rock lobster rights holders want the catch to be reduced by 9.6% to allow for replenishment of the stock, as they say overfishing could jeopardise the long-term sustainability of an industry worth an estimated R300million to R350million annually.
Van Dalen has also asked public protector Thuli Madonsela to investigate, complaining of "apparent illegal interference" by Joemat-Pettersson in determining the total allowable catch for 2012-2013. He also asked Madonsela to investigate whether department officials had unlawfully changed the total allowable catch, which had been predetermined by the Act.
"These decisions should be based on sound scientific evidence," said Van Dalen. "This is making a mockery of the separation of power and [is] a gross contravention of the ethics code."
In her affidavit, Sole said the operational management plan developed by the marine science component of the fisheries department, known as the West Coast lobster scientific working group, had confirmed that the resource was being exploited at unsustainable levels and that the total allowable catch should be "reduced by 9.7% to enable the resource to, on aggregate, recover to 5% of its pre-exploitation level by 2021", she said.
Sole claimed this plan had the support of organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature's South African sustainable seafood initiative, the Recreational Fishers Association of South Africa and the South African West Coast Rock Lobster Association.
The government, represented by Joemat-Pettersson, had failed to uphold the Constitution and the Act, as well as protocols and agreements designed to protect the environment, she claimed. Sole said the department, as represented by its previous fisheries deputy director general, Ceba Mtoba, had decided not to implement its own working group's plan. Mtoba, now the chief director responsible for compliance enforcement in the fisheries department, said he was unable to comment.