Ocean View fishers drowned out by policy

Part I of a two-monthGroundUp investigation into the plight of fishers in Ocean View on the Cape Peninsula, who say government’s management of fisheries is corrupt, politically biased and is driving them into poverty.

“We have no good story to tell. There is just this ghastly, dark reality of what is really happening here. I am living on the fresh air — on my family and friends generosity,” says Charles America, a fisher from Ocean View who has worked on False Bay and the Peninsula for decades. 

The spokesperson for the Ocean View and Witsand Artisanal Fishers Association, America sits with over half a dozen other fishers from this area known decades ago, as Slangkop. The suburb was later ironically renamed Ocean View during the late sixties, when the coastal suburbs were proclaimed a white area and the resident coloured people were forcibly removed from those areas.

These are heartsore stories, these tales of the decimation of artisanal fishing in the Cape. Stories of boys who went out to sea with men; of fathers and sons fishing from the beach; of daughters who grew up with relatives who were langanas (snoek salesmen), or mothers who dried, salted and wrapped fish in brown paper.

“The sea calls me. Every day it calls me,” says one fisher, a stocky man who must be in his fifties. He’s hunched forward in his chair, and his face falls into his hands every now and again. He looks like he’s on the verge of tears. “We lived on the sea, but now I can’t go fish? This is fucked up. I am nothing without the sea. Nothing!” says the fisher who asks not to be identified because he believes that his complaints will prejudice whatever chances he might have of getting access to marine resources again.

Hardly economically viable
Ocean View is a densely populated town situated some 40km from the centre of Cape Town. A product of apartheid, the fishing town was created after the Group Areas Act proclaimed that people classified “coloured” by the Nationalist government were to be evicted from the white-only neighbouring towns of Noordhoek, Glencairn, Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town. 

The Ocean View fishers say they’re being forced into poverty by the government’s “flawed and corrupt” fishing permit process, and by quotas that have been reduced to a point where it’s hardly economically viable to go to sea. Their other complaint is that quotas are short term and aren’t granted in a sustainable manner, which means there is no long-term incentive for the fishers to create sustainable businesses. 

The fishers also say cadre deployment has injected middlemen and resource-grabbers into local fisheries. They say these people have enormous power within their community because they essentially decide on quotas. All the fishers GroundUp speaks to, bar those who actually manage the community rights allocation processes for the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries (DAFF) in Ocean View, believe what’s happening is tearing their community apart.

“We have been fishing here, and keeping up the fishing traditions even during the terrible apartheid times. But now we get less, and less access to catches. During apartheid, people in Ocean View had fishing rights, but things changed radically after democracy,” says America who talks about how his life, and those of the other fishers he speaks for, has changed since the death of apartheid.

“When the interim relief was declared by the Equality Court it was prescribed that the 1 000 fishers identified by the court would have a total allowable catch of 167kg of crayfish for the season which ran for the latter part of 2008 into 2009. But the size of the pie is being gradually carved into smaller and smaller pieces,” says America.

“167kg was worth about R28 000 but this was reduced to 138kg, and then to 105kg which means that today you can only get between R17 000 and R18 000 for the entire season if you have an honest, reliable and regular buyer. And that’s if you don’t have any issues with quality or dead crayfish. If the crayfish is dead you get less because it must be exported alive,” explains America, who says that in 2011 the ANC Fishing Desk increased the number of permits without consultation or verification, and did so in flagrant disregard of the Constitutional Court order.

Small-scale fishers
The government defines small-scale fishers as “persons that fish to meet food and basic livelihood needs, or are directly involved in harvesting/processing or marketing of fish, traditionally operate on or near shore fishing grounds, predominantly employ traditional low technology or passive fishing gear, usually undertake single day fishing trips, and are engaged in the sale or barter or are involved in commercial activity.” 

Government policy on small scale fishers – yet to be adopted – declares that “small-scale fishers have a very long history of harvesting marine living resources” and explains that during “colonial times and more recently during the apartheid era, many traditional fishing communities were dispossessed of their lands adjacent to the coast.”

In recent times, problems for small scale fishers intensified when the Marine Living Resources Act, 18 of 1998 became law, because it excluded artisanal and small-scale fishers, as well as those people involved in working alongside the fishers, such as people who prepare bait, process catches, or sell fish.

In 2005, after the government adopted policies for fisheries that excluded small-scale fishers, which it says number some 30 000, a civic organisation called Masifundise Development Trust banded together with affected fishers to take the issue to the Equality Court. In 2007 the court ruled that interim rights be afforded to small-scale fishers, and that a new policy inclusive of these small-scale fishers be formulated by government. 

The Policy for the Small-Scale Fisheries Sector was published in the Government Gazette of June 2012, but to date this policy has still not been finalised. The interim relief system put in place by DAFF following the Equality Court ruling is now rolling into its ninth year. 

Delayed implementation of policy
A spokesperson for the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries says that consultation on the policy has delayed its implementation. “Due to the complexity and various opposing approaches to management of the small-scale fisheries sector, finalisation of this policy has taken longer than anticipated,” says DAFF spokesperson, Lionel Adendorf. 

“This policy was only finalised in June 2012 but further work was required beyond the establishment of the policy in order to prepare for the implementation of the policy,” he says, adding that this includes the finalisation and the approval of the Marine Living Resources Act Amendment Bill in 2014.

Asked when the policy will be finalised, Adendorf gives no clear answer. 

“The DAFF continues to channel resources and dedicate efforts towards the implementation of the small-scale fisheries policy. We remain convinced that this is the only viable option to manage the sector as the current dispensation was designed to serve fishers who were directly or indirectly marginalised by the systems of the past and that this was meant to be implemented for two fishing seasons only. Hence this dispensation cannot keep up with the number of fishers who wish to participate and the limited marine resources currently available for this growing number of fishers.” he said. 

And what about the 2015 fishing rights allocation process? When will that be completed? “The DAFF is currently determining our readiness for the allocation process and will make an announcement on it within the next few weeks,” says Adendorf.

Severe financial stress
Back in Ocean View the fishers say that the interim system is easily manipulated and that despite the Equality Court ruling, DAFF and the ANC are doing whatever they want with quotas and permits. The result, they say, is that fishers in the community are subject to severe financial stress.

“A big problem for many fishers in Ocean View is that they’ve committed themselves to voorskotte (financial advances) to make ends meet, which ties them into deals and prices that are way below the market price. They do this because they need loans during the closed season and it is also a matter of literacy, and being in a dire situation,” says America.

Sitting in a lounge in Ocean View, America is surrounded by his peers who are extremely emotional and angry. They say that while they are allowed to fish for yellowtail and snoek, as well as for “hottentot” (black bream), the latter fish is of such a low value it isn’t even worth a boat owner’s time and money to launch because the catch won’t bring in nearly enough to pay the boat owner, the crew, bait, fuel and towage.

“Yellowtail and snoek flashes here and then there is a flash there. During this past winter there was not a single catch for us traditional fishers. One week the fish is in Stompneus Bay, the next it is at Cape Point, or Robben Island. Those fish are migratory and very mobile. Now we almost entirely dependent on the West Coast rock lobster, and our allocations are being reduced year on year,” says America.

Shaheen Moolla, chief executive of the fisheries advisory company, Feike, explains the background to the rights allocation debacle that hit headlines during 2014.

“South Africa presently has 22 commercial and small-scale fishing sectors. Prior to the unlawful allocation of fishing rights in December 2013 [known as FRAP], all fishing rights were regulated in terms of long term quota management policies of between eight and 15 years. In total, more than 3 000 fishing rights were in place and of these more than 2 200 were allocated exclusively to small-scale fishers,” he says.

“Small-scale fishers have exclusive access to all nearshore stocks. By this I mean – at least until FRAP 2013 ruined this clear separation between offshore and nearshore fisheries – prior to FRAP 2013, no industrial commercial company, its shareholders, directors or managers could in any way hold a nearshore fishing right,” explains Moolla. 

“FRAP 2013 has via its appallingly worded General Fishery Policy 2013 removed this protection for small scale fishers allowing (in theory) Sea Harvest or Oceana or its directors and shareholders to also apply for and hold small-scale fishing rights. This is of course extremely disadvantageous to small-scale fishers as they simply do not have the resources to compete against the resources available to the big players – such as being able to employ consultants to complete application forms, negotiate access to vessels and equipment to target small-scale fish stocks,” Moolla elaborates.

“The irony – as usual with government claims about protecting the poor and marginalised – is that bad policy influenced by either ignorance or corruption in effect exposes the Charles Americas of our industry to even more poverty and isolation as is clearly the case across our coast,” he says.

The collapse of lobster stocks
Currently small-scale fishers are entitled to harvest nearshore stocks of lobster using hoop nets; abalone; linefish (about 50 commercially targeted species including yellowtail, hottentot and snoek); hake using handlines; oysters; mussels; and linefish using trek nets.

“Only abalone and lobster are regulated by catch limits while the remaining fisheries are effort controlled, meaning the size of the vessel or number of oyster/mussel harvesters are regulated,” Moolla states. 

Then there’s the matter of just how much stock there is in the ocean. “The seriously misguided and destructive decision of the Equality Court to grant access to a further 1 000 (now 2 000) fishers to lobster in 2007 marked the collapse of South African lobster stocks. I can unequivocally lay the blame for the collapse of lobster at the door of this misguided judgement,” says Moola who adds: “Fish stocks are not meant for social welfare or equal access.”

Moolla says the collapse of lobster stocks, together with the declining total allowable catch as determined by DAFF since 2007 resulted in a loss of R600-million rand in value. He reckons the total allowable catch (TAC) for lobster declined by 29% during the past two seasons.

“The collapse of lobster is increasing at such an alarming rate that the average nearshore lobster fisherman saw the quota plummet from plus or minus 600kg in 2014 to the current 500kg this year. A 100kg drop is equivalent to a R25 000 net (before tax) loss in income,” he says. 

Moolla details how, in the abalone fishery, mismanagement has been an even greater economic catastrophe for fishers. In a written response to a request for figures he responds:

“By way of example, in 2013 a typical abalone right-holder had an individual allocation of 526kg; equivalent to approximate earnings (before tax) of R115 000 per annum or R9 600 per month. In 2014 this was decreased to 334kg; equivalent to approximate earnings (before tax) of R73 000 per annum or R6 000 per month. In 2015 DAFF wanted to reduce individual allocations to 153kg, equivalent to approximate earnings (before tax) of 33 000 per annum or R2 700 per month.”

In more economically marginal fisheries such as oysters, trek nets and mussels, Moolla says “the illegal and catastrophic FRAP 2013 has simply destroyed these sectors.”

In Ocean View, America and his peers agree that the conditions and regulations governing interim relief have worsened. “The one-permit system seems to enjoy the official blessing of DAFF, even though far more corruption, fraud and over-catching was recorded and reported,” says America. Instead of getting individual permits to catch lobsters, a community like Ocean View is given one TAC limit that must be divided up by the community.

“This one-permit system has caused loss of income to several individuals including myself.” he added.

“The one with the best political connections is the winner and uses the quotas as a tool against everybody else. We traditional fishers must just dance according to that. The problem we face is that the department doesn’t see us as bona fide fisherman. My case currently is with the public protector. I’ve written to the Human Rights Commission. I’ve exhausted all avenues. Now, like so many other bona fide fishers, I just live on air and the welfare of family,” says America. 

The other fishers in the room nod in agreement. They know what it is to try and survive without going to the sea, these men and women with the Ocean View fishing blues.

This article was originally published on GroundUp.

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