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Fishing for answers

Aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing food production systems in the world. Yet Africa, with all its resources, makes up less than 1% of global production, with South Africa contributing only 1% of the continent’s production.

Statistics from the Aquaculture Association of Southern Africa show that the world aquaculture industry contributes 30% to total food fish production and is worth $52-billion.

Aquaculture globally has been growing at 8% to 9% a year for the past 20 years, but its development lags behind in South Africa because of several constraints, including the lack of a policy.

Last week Environment and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk published Policy for the Development of a Sustainable Marine Aquaculture Sector in South Africa in an attempt to promote and regulate aquaculture in South Africa. This is the first policy of its kind in the country.

Department spokesperson Mava Scott said the paper was published after a two-year intensive stakeholder engagement process. ”The main purpose is to encourage acceleration of the development of the marine aqua­culture industry. It is further aimed at promoting the development of an economically sustainable and globally competitive industry with minimum negative impact on the environment.”

The department believes marine aquaculture presents an opportunity to increase the diversity of economic activity substantially in coastal areas, specifically where declining fish stocks and shifts in distribution of certain fish species have led to job losses and economic hardships for people who historically found employment in the fishing industry.

The policy essentially has four objectives. It wants to create an environment that promotes the growth of marine aquaculture and enhances the industry’s contribution to economic growth. It also wants to promote transformation and broader participation in the aquaculture industry. It aims to support and develop regulatory and management mechanisms aimed at avoiding or minimising adverse environmental impacts. Lastly, it wants to increase the variety of species being farmed.

The department also believes the industry has the potential to create skills-based employment and income for coastal communities. The policy will be complemented by a marine aquaculture development plan, which will outline strategies for its practical implementation.

An aquaculture specialist from Rhodes University, Dr Peter Britz, said the marine aquaculture policy is a positive step. ”Fish is in increasingly limited supply as our fisheries are exploited and showing signs of overfishing or decline. The only way we can increase fish supply is by imports — which is not great from a socioeconomic point of view — or through aquaculture.”

Britz said the aquaculture industry has complained for a long time that marine and coastal management under the department of environmental affairs and tourism has been ”regulatory” and has not done enough to promote the growth of aquaculture, for example by developing farming technology for indigenous fish species and zoning water for aquaculture.

”Aquaculture operations have had endless problems doing environmental impact assessments and trying to obtain permits from marine and coastal management. This has discouraged many investors,” he said. ”In the policy the department now adopts a much more developmental approach with ‘aquaculture development nodes’.”

Nodes will remove many of the environmental impact assessment and permit problems and reduce conflict with other coastal uses. They are economically efficient because services are clustered together.

The environment department has been criticised for not extending fishing rights in a substantive way to coastal communities, he said.

”While there have been shortcomings in the rights allocation process, which tends to favour established companies over disadvantaged individuals, the main problem is that there is simply not enough fish for everyone to get a quota. So marine coastal management and the environment department are actively promoting aquaculture as a means of creating economic opportunity for coastal communities.”

It has been suggested that aquaculture can solve the food needs of poor South Africans and replace capture fisheries. But Professor John Bolton, a mariculture expert at the University of Cape Town’s botany department, said even though people discuss aquaculture as a possible source of food for the future one has to be careful — it could be a dangerous assumption in South Africa’s case.

”You need water for aquaculture,” he said. ”South Africa does not have lots of lakes and water is a scarce resource in many areas. This will always limit our freshwater aqua­culture potential.”

In the marine environment, aquaculture farmers need large areas of water sheltered from wave action, such as estuaries, lagoons and bays. But South Africa has limited numbers of these. Bolton said most mariculture production on a global scale is produced in areas with large sheltered bays, such as salmon in Chile, Norway, Canada and Scotland. ”We have Saldanha Bay, the Knysna lagoon and a couple of other areas on the east coast, which severely limits mariculture prospects.”

Another option is to pump sea­water and grow fish in tanks or ponds on land, but this is expensive and needs an expensive product, such as abalone. South Africa’s greatest success story so far in the field has been abalone aquaculture.

”This is a high-value product,” said Bolton. ”To succeed further we might have to have sea cages, which can resist high wave action, or grow other species like abalone in tanks on land. Both of these are expensive and likely, in the short term, to cater to the higher end of the market.”

Bolton said it will be difficult for marine aquaculture to replace South Africa’s fisheries — as happened in Chile — and high-value products are the way to grow the industry.

South Africa’s biggest abalone farm, I&J at Gansbaai, recently completed a new fish hatchery. Whether this can be carried out profitably on our high-energy coastline or in land-based systems is the big question.

Abalone aquaculture has made an impact in the Gansbaai area. It is estimated that abalone farms employ more than 1 600 people, produce 900 tons of abalone a year and have replaced the legal harvest fishery as the local source of supply.

Bolton said the policy is sound and will increase aquaculture in South Africa, but pointed out that legislation is difficult to get around for anyone trying to start an aquaculture business.

Some environmentalists remain sceptical. ”There are those who hear the word aquaculture and immediately think of pollution,” said Bolton. ”This is a problem in a number of cases, but mariculture is generally much better than agriculture.”

Additional reporting by Ruth Krüger

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Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.

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