The fleet of nine fishing vessels went radio silent after sunset on May 12. Navigation lights and tracking beacons were also turned off. South Africa’s Victoria Mxenge — a 47m-long fisheries patrol vessel sent to bring the fleet to Saldanha Bay — hailed the fleet by radio, asking for a reason for the abrupt and illegal conduct. None was forthcoming. Instead, the fleet split apart and headed west at full speed. The Victoria Mxenge tracked Lu Huang Yuan Yu 186 on its radar through the pitch-dark night and boarded it. That vessel is now tied up in Cape Town harbour. But a subsequent chase by a navy vessel failed when the fleet left South Africa’s naval jurisdiction.
The maxim governing the world’s oceans is simple: “You cannot control what you cannot patrol.”
For South Africa, this throws up a conundrum — 1.5 million square kilometres of ocean need to be patrolled. This is an area larger than its landmass. But there are only 14 vessels, four naval helicopters and five planes available to do that. On a good day, only three-quarters of those are able to head out to sea.
This is a historical problem. South Africa’s territorial waters extend out 22km from shore. Its exclusive economic zone, where it owns all resources, goes out 370km. This then stretches into the southern oceans, 1 600km to the Prince Edward and Marion islands.
Current government plans are toturn that area into a R177 billion a year factory — Operation Phakisa will include fisheries and 22 off-shore marine protected areas. But naval investment has not kept up with the scale of this plan.
South Africa spends 1.05% of its gross domestic product on the military. The world average is 2%, while its neighbours spend 3%. The 2014 Defence Review — a comprehensive look at the armed services — said this spending is at odds with the importance the ocean has to South Africa. Most of its imports and exports come across the ocean. The ocean economy brings in R60 billion a year. Securing all of this requires “deterrence and a powerful intervention through surface, subsurface and air capabilities”, according to the report.
But both deterrence and intervention are hamstrung.
“SA Navy vessels can no longer be made combat ready to execute the full range of missions they were designed for,” the report said. This means that 40-year-old vessels are still plodding along, while new frigates are operated more frequently than they should be, which affects their maintenance, it said.
In her budget speech this month, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula warned: “We have come to a point where we must make a critical decision on the future of the defence force. The longer we delay in arresting the decline, the harder and more expensive it will become to reverse the trend.”
That decline means South Africa has little capacity to patrol. The navy has four new frigates, three ancient offshore patrol vessels and three inshore patrol vessels to respond to any illegal fishing and piracy across 1.5 million square kilometres.
Its three submarines stick to surveillance. These 10 vessels are, strictly speaking, relegated to a supporting role for the fisheries department. It has three new inshore patrol vessels and one deep-sea patrol vessel.
Timothy Walker, a maritime specialist at the Institute for Security Studies, says this limited capacity poses an immediate threat to the country’s fish stocks.
“Illegal fleets are always probing your exclusive zone to find a weakness. You have to show your intent and respond to this,” he says.
His institute calculates that illegal fishing costs the economy more than R6 billion a year. Without an increase in vessels, and things such as intelligence gathering and surveillance of the ocean, the country’s oceans will be plundered to a level where they would struggle to recover, he says. “By the time we get the assets to patrol our fisheries, the damage will have been done.”
The most pressing concern is South Africa’s poor maritime awareness, says Henri Fouché of Stellenbosch University’s faculty of military science. “We don’t know what is going on [at sea] because of the lack of assets.”
At present, South Africa tracks ships through their automatic identification systems, which have to be kept on, by law. But illegal fishing vessels turn theirs off, as did the fleet that fled the Victoria Mxenge patrol vessel. This means it is down to a handful of 70-year-old surveillance planes based at Ysterplaat Air Force Base in Cape Town to find vessels.
The radar on the navy’s four frigates can only see up to 200km away — a drop in the ocean. Fouché says: “Essentially, our vessels head out on patrol and get lucky. But this is a tremendous area that has to be covered.” When the navy does go out on patrol, it has a good record of finding illegal fishing, he says. Arresting these vessels is the fisheries department’s responsibility.
Matthew Thornton-Dibb, an environmental lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright, says this department has the mandate to look after the country’s fish stocks, a task governed by the Marine Living Resources Act.
This gives fisheries protection officers the right to “seize any vessel they believe is undertaking illegal activity”, he says. This can include acting erratically, or switching off the tracking beacon. But when a vessel leaves territorial waters and heads into international waters, there is little a country can do.
To boost the ability of the navy and fisheries department to catch ships inside South Africa’s waters, the navy launched Project Biro.
This would see three new offshore and three new inshore-patrol vessels being built at local dockyards, and would give the country enough capacity to patrol its oceans.
But the project has been consistently delayed. South Africa remains a maritime country without maritime assets.
Nanosatellites for surveillance
Cognisant of the funding shortage, various departments have spent a long time looking for other ways to conduct ocean surveillance. An initial planto fly airships over the southern oceans was rejected after the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research pointed out that the winds there would tear them apart.
But technology has a solution: nanosatellites.
Nine of these fist-sized satellites will cove South Africa’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone by 2019. These will track heat signatures coming from vessels, and check whether they have their automatic beacons on and fishing rights — if they are in a fishery. That will allow the navy and fisheries department to selectively dispatch its small contingent of vessels.
Illegal fishing: A global problem
In 1985, 13 Chinese vessels were operating in African waters. There are now nearly 500. China boasts the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet. Its vessels stand accused of numerous suspicious and illegal activities.
A 2014 Greenpeace investigation found that much of its African fleet underreported tonnage. Some vessels were also caught moving their catch to other vessels at sea. That meant less tax to be paid to the host nations.
Response to illegal fishing depends on fleet size. In March, Indonesian naval vessels were prevented from arresting a Chinese fishing vessel by larger Chinese coastguard vessels.
In the same month, Argentina sunk a Chinese trawler it accused of fishing illegally. This trawler was from the same company that had its vessel arrested in South African waters last week. In 2011, the South Korean coast- guard detained a fleet of Chinese fishing vessels.