In 2004, South Africa was the first country in Africa to be awarded Marine Stewardship Council certification for the hake trawl industry.
The certificate was renewed in 2010 for a period of five years. This has given South Africa a far greater market among concerned consumers globally: the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international body, founded in 1996 and modelled on the Forestry Stewardship Council.
Its aim is to recognise and reward sustainable fishing, and give the consumer the assurance that they can eat MSC certified foods with a good conscience.
For 1.5-billion people around the world, fish is a mainstay, providing at least 20% of their protein. Yet while human numbers soar past seven billion, global production of wild-caught seafood peaked in 1996, at 86.3-million tonnes, an amount which had declined to 79.5-million tonnes by 2008.
Marine resources around the world are in decline. Red flags have been waving for decades, but one of the sharpest warnings was sounded in 2003, in Nature, when scientists Ransom Myers and Boris Worm concluded, in their paper Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities, that "industrialised fisheries typically reduced community biomass by 80% within 15 years of exploitation we estimate that large predatory fish biomass today is only about 10% of pre-industrial levels".
Almost a third (29.9%) of global fish stocks are over-fished and 57% are fully fished, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation's 2012 State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report.
South Africans have been exploiting marine resources since the inhabitants of Klasies River Cave shucked their first shellfish about 125 000 years ago. Today, the total yearly fish production from marine fisheries is more than 600 000 tonnes and our fishing industry has an annual turnover of about R80-billion.
"Until recently, we've had examples of some of the best managed fisheries in the world," said Dr Samantha Petersen, senior manager of the marine programme at the Worldwide Fund for Nature-South Africa (WWF-SA).
The government has focused its attention on large scale commercial fisheries, including two of the biggest sectors, hake and small pelagic fish (hake is the most valuable, while the small pelagic fishery targeting sardine and anchovy is the biggest by volume).
"The South African government uses the best available science to manage our fisheries, including the adoption of sophisticated mathematical models to calculate the annual total allowable catch," said Petersen.
No research this year
But why "until recently"?
Key to the responsible management of South Africa's fisheries and maintaining its MSC certification is the "scientific observer programme", in which scientists collect data and monitor catches, bycatch (other species caught while fishing) and how and where fishing takes place.
This, along with research surveys, Petersen said, is the only independent monitoring of South Africa's fisheries — all other data comes from the fisheries themselves. This information is also critical for setting quotas for the small pelagic fish. Maritimematters.net, which follows fishing industry issues closely, said in early June that loss of the MSC certification "could result in the loss of up to 5 000 jobs in the hake fishing industry, as well as lucrative international markets — about R5-billion in economic value, generated through exports.
"And, to make matters worse, the anchovy fisheries also appear to be in trouble. Their scientific survey, due to have taken place in May, has not happened. This survey is essential. "If the quotas are not set correctly, they will be set at very conservative levels. Experts fear that this could cost the anchovy industry up to R200-million."
The contract for the observer programme lapsed at the end of 2011, due, as Johan Augustyn of the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries admitted, to "financial and bureaucratic problems".
When this caught the attention of the opposition and interested parties towards the middle of this year, departmental spokesperson Selby Bokaba put out a statement that it was "committed to putting the marine research vessels back at sea and the required scientific observer programme in place in a bid to retain the hake deep sea trawl sector MSC certification. "A procurement process is underway to contract a service provider for the scientific observer programme – to monitor each vessel of the fishing companies going out to sea for fishing purposes — to ensure compliance and prevent possible over-fishing."
And then followed a comedy of errors. The procurement process did not conclude at the end of August as expected. However, in September, FishNewseu.com reported that South Africa had completed its annual surveillance report and retained its certification.
Finally, on October 22, the SAS Africana set sail under navy command to do the final small pelagic research cruise of the 2012 season. This was a matter of "just in time": there would be no other chances.
On November 4, after only two weeks and without completing its mission, the ship was towed into False Bay with engine trouble.
Apparently sea water had somehow got into the fuel tanks, which Rear Admiral Teuteberg characterised as a "minor challenge", assuring the parliamentary committee that the ship would be back at sea within days.
Yet, as each new departure date came and went, the ship remained in dock. In the end, it became apparent that the ship would need a good couple of weeks to repair, and is likely to miss the window of opportunity to complete its research.
This, said Shaheen Moolla, director of FEIKE Natural Resource Management Advisors and a member of the IUCN's commission on environmental law: oceans, coastal and coral reef specialist group, spells trouble for employees in the small pelagic fisheries. "Government will be forced to set next year's quota at a low level, and that could mean around 2 000 people losing jobs."
Given the sterling efforts made by the Responsible Fisheries Alliance (RFA) in recent years to turn this into a sustainable industry, one which employs people, turns a profit and maintains healthy resources, this is unfortunate.
The industry needs the support of the independent science to progress. The RFA's members (I&J, Oceana Group Ltd, Sea Harvest, Selecta Sea Products and WWF) have got the message: the healthier the marine ecosystem, the longer South Africa can profit from them, in terms both of product and ecological services.
Bycatch (animals accidentally caught up in a trawl or any other method of fishing) has been a major focus, and the group is particularly proud of its success with seabirds.
"Improved methods have brought the bycatch down from about 18 000 birds a year to a really negligible figure," said Petersen.
The RFA is also engaged in research on how the threatened African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is affected by the small pelagic fishing industry.
Nearly seven years ago, the WWF developed a training programme aimed at fishing crews and others working in the industry (RFA took over the running of the programme in 2010).
"The crews have seen the changes in the oceans they fish," said Petersen. "Smaller catches, smaller fish, fish that move from their traditional grounds… the programme helps them to make sense of what is happening and their attitude changes from exploiter to custodian of the sea."
RFA chair and chief executive of the Oceana Group Francois Kuttel said it is crucial that South Africa focuses on "capacity building by investing in retaining and building marine and scientific research skills," and continues to invest in research vessels to perform regular surveys of the biomass of commercial fish species.
Without a commitment to ongoing collation and analysis of statistical information garnered in these surveys, it's impossible to keep tabs on the health of South Afric's fisheries, he said: "It is important to make informed decisions regarding the total allowable catch based on sound good science."