Thomas Smit* lives a life often determined by chance. He can control his own actions, but not the variables.
“There are days when the sea gets the better of you, when the waves smash your equipment and endanger your life. But you have to go out. You need the money.”
Technically classified as a commercial fisherman – as opposed to a small-scale fisherman – he has fishing rights for abalone and West Coast rock lobster. Both are near endangered. The commercial label is grand for a man who has one employee – who steadies the boat when Smit goes diving for abalone. He doesn’t want to be named for fear that it could cost him the remainder of his fishing quota.
Quotas – for various endangered species along the Western and Eastern Cape coastlines – were divvied up 11 years ago and several hundred previously disadvantaged fishermen benefited. Smit says it involved a great deal of consultation.
“Fisheries [department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries] gave each group a real chance to make it, with a focus on small-scale fishermen instead of big industry.”
At the time, the government said this would create a group of people with a vested interest in managing the commons. But since then illegal fishing has exploded. Several fishermen in both the Eastern Cape and on the West Coast say that corruption and poor enforcement have seen fish stocks plummet. The owner of a three-man operation says: “The thieves come and strip our areas, so our quotas keep getting lowered.”
In some cases these quotas have already dropped 60%, pushing many fishermen out of the industry.
The problem lies less at a local level and more at a national level, where smuggling syndicates should be closed down, say fishermen.
A similar explosion of illegal fishing in 2008 saw species such as abalone put on the Cites (Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species) list, which made their trade illegal, but that was overturned, without taking stock of resources.
On its abalone fact sheet, the South African National Biodiversity Agency says: “They were removed from Cites because of pressure from the fishing industry.”
The slow growth of abalone and similarly endangered species means they are vulnerable to being overharvested.
“Current management strategies put in place seem to have little effect on protecting this species, and continued pressure and unsustainable use seem to persist,” the agency says.
The overturned listing coincided with a period of several thousand court orders on behalf of fishermen demanding access to stocks. A late 2007 Equality Court ruling compelled the fisheries department to implement the Marine Living Resources Amendment Bill. This envisaged a system in which fishing rights would be given to community co-operatives. The subsequent 2013 Fishing Rights Application Process was so flawed that it was put aside – under pressure – by then the then minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson.
A new allocation for 15-year permits was launched this year. Public consultation has also been started on overarching allocation, but existing rights holders say, although the illusion of consultation has been created, the decision on who gets what quotas has already been taken. Fishermen describe it as “quotas for cronies” because of the perceived political nature of the process.
A consultation meeting was held last week in Cape Town, which several hundred people attended. But only three, who heard about it through the grapevine, were existing rights holders. Others said they were not invited to the meeting.
The department announced at this meeting that it is going to give a percentage of the existing total allowable catch to “small-scale fishers”. A document circulated at the meeting proposes that this allocation should come from those rights given to fishermen 11 years ago as part of the process to give rights to historically disadvantaged individuals. It proposes that 40% of the current West Coast lobster catch should go to new groups, and the total abalone catch to new groups.
The current “commercial fishers” – mostly two-man operations – would still have to apply for a permit renewal and see how much of the original share they would get.
One of them says: “You’re taking from the previously disadvantaged and giving to a new group of previously disadvantaged just to curry favour in those communities. Its politics through and through.”
The process means that, instead of a small industry looking after the commons, more and more people are scrambling to dig into a dwindling stock, he says. “Nobody cares about our fish stocks or people who already struggle to survive.”
The department did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
*Not his real name.