A furore erupted this week over the government’s granting of “experimental” fishing quotas for abalone along the Eastern Cape coastline to companies based in the Western Cape.
Subsistence fishing communities in the Eastern Cape accused Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson of using the abalone quotas to “buy votes” among impoverished communities around Hermanus, where the shellfish has been poached almost to extinction.
Her department issued seven quotas last month for the harvesting of more than 31 tonnes of abalone along 400km of the Eastern Cape coast. Similar harvests would be allowed every year for the next three years as part of the experiment.
Gavin Prins, the representative of the Ibhayi Historical Seaharvest Divers in Port Elizabeth, said local fishing communities were not informed about the quotas and were not benefiting from them.
It has been established that at least two permits have been issued to employees in the Kouga Municipality and two Western Cape companies, Overberg Commercial Abalone Divers in Gans Bay and Pesculana in Claremont, have been contracted to do the harvesting, processing and distribution of the abalone.
“The Western Cape is controlling our fisheries, causing our diving companies and processing factories to close down. These quotas are not benefiting the Eastern Cape,” Prins said. A fisherman, who did not want to be named, said he had come across five boatloads of divers from the Western Cape searching for abalone around Jeffreys Bay and St Francis Bay recently.
“No scientific surveys have been done. There is no knowledge of the sustainable level of harvesting. It is just a knee-jerk response [to gain] voter support in the battle of the Western Cape because the five boats of divers were all from Hawston, where they have quota reductions and a lack of voter support,” he said.
The experiment is supposed to determine the geographical distribution of abalone in the Eastern Cape and whether it could sustain a viable abalone fishery, according to the department.
But scientists warned that the opening of “experimental” abalone fisheries could lead to the further decline of the species, already on the verge of extinction because of poaching.
Marine biologist Allan Heydorn said breeding grounds were essential to protect the species. “If tonnes of abalone are removed from restricted localities, irrespective of whether this is for experimental purposes or not, the already heavily stressed natural reproductive processes will be weakened even further,” he said.
Experimental quotas for the annual removal of 12 tonnes of abalone have also been approved along the eastern side of False Bay in the Western Cape, from Cape Hangklip Lighthouse to the Steenbras River mouth. The department is considering a proposal to extend quotas into marine zones around Betty’s Bay, but said this had not been approved and was still at an early stage.
Several conservation organisations, including the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa, have recommended that the Betty’s Bay marine reserve be declared a “no-take” protected area because it is part of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, established in 1998 through an agreement between the government and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
“At present, South Africa is not fulfilling the requirement of core-zone protection of the marine environment as is necessary for internationally recognised coastal biosphere reserves throughout the world,” said Heydorn. “Consequently, South Africa is at risk of losing international recognition for the Kogelberg Biosphere.”
Of the areas along South Africa’s coastline where abalone is considered to be present, 15% is protected by restricted zones and closed areas in the Western Cape and 25% is in the Eastern Cape.
For years, officials in the fisheries department have come under pressure from the commercial abalone industry in the Western Cape to open up these areas. The ANC has relied on Joemat-Pettersson to shore up coloured support around Hawston ever since she was dispatched to the nearby village of Botrivier in a by-election there in 2010.
Prins said he had raised his worries about Joemat-Pettersson using the Eastern Cape’s abalone to levy support around Hawston with the former director general of her department, Langa Zita, who was fired last week.
“He knew about our concerns and was looking into them, then he was fired. Several other officials who promised to come to our rescue have also been targeted,” he said.
Prins said he was struggling to get answers to why local divers and a processing factory for farmed abalone near East London could not be used. The experimental quotas were confusing, encouraging poachers and a “anarchy in the future”.
Where will that money go?
He said five tonnes of abalone allocated in Port Elizabeth had been awarded to “upper-class areas, not fishing communities. At R250 to R300 a kilogram, they will get more than R1.5-million for this quota. Where will that money go?”
Fisheries department spokesperson Lionel Adendorf said Joemat-Pettersson had been talking about expanding fishing opportunities along the entire Cape coastline since she was appointed minister in 2009.
“This experimental investigation aims to establish how abalone is distributed geographically in the Eastern Cape, how abundant it is, what its size and age composition is and whether it is possible to sustain a viable abalone fishery in the Eastern Cape. We believe that three years is sufficient time to answer these questions,” he said.
The amount of abalone to be harvested during the experiment took into account previous estimates of the size of the abalone stock in the Eastern Cape, as well as knowledge of the biology of abalone, he said. “It is therefore not envisaged that the experiment will have a significant negative effect on reproductive processes in these stocks, or on the status of the stocks.”
Adendorf said there were 1084 registered beneficiaries of the seven Eastern Cape quotas, but he did not specify where they were from. These beneficiaries had chosen to contract the Western Cape companies to do the work, he said.
A sea job
Noél Kurag, an employee in the housing department at the Kouga municipality, said his wife was awarded an experimental quota on the strength of his having been second skipper on a boat for 18 years and “leading the plight of fishing communities for many years”.
He had taken a job at the municipality two years ago after he was fired for leading a strike in the fishing industry and had struggled to get “a sea job”.
The quota, for harvesting nine tonnes of abalone over 85km from the Groot River to the Kabeljous River, would benefit at least 43 local people in Jeffreys Bay and St Francis Bay, Kurag said.
They had agreed to appoint the Western Cape companies because the appropriate expertise was not available in the Eastern Cape. “It is hard to find the expertise we need locally because this is an experiment and has never been done in the Eastern Cape before.”
Laura-Leigh Randall, spokesperson for Kouga Municipality, said municipal employees who applied for abalone quotas would have to get council approval. She could not confirm how many employees had applied.