​Pirate fishing vessels are fined, but SA’s ocean policing is woefully inadequate

South African authorities have released two Chinese and one Indonesian-flagged fishing trawlers after payment of R1.3-million in fines. 

This is a fraction of the roughly R70-million worth of squid found on board when two South African vessels escorted them into Port Elizabeth harbour in May. The fisheries department said at the time that capturing the vessels “indicates our seriousness as a country to protect our territorial and exclusive economic zone”. This is the 370km zone around the country where it owns all natural resources.  

The department said: “Plundering of those resources will not be tolerated.” 

The fisheries patrol vessel Sarah Baartman and navy replenishment vessel SAS Drakensberg arrested the three on suspicion of illegal activity in South Africa’s exclusive economic zone. More than 600 tonnes of squid were found on the vessels when they were inspected at the port.  

Following this inspection, the fisheries department said: “The outcomes of the scientific tests [on the squid] showed that it was not fished in our waters. We therefore had no legal grounds to confiscate the fish as it was not fished in our waters.” 

But the vessels and their captains were charged with other offences under the Marine Living Resources Act. The largest fine of R600 000 was for possessing fishing gear on board without the permit to carry it in territorial waters. Smaller fines made up the rest of the R1.3-million fine, including a R50 000 fine for the two Chinese-flagged vessels for not complying with a fishery control officer when asked to head to East London harbour. 

The arrests in May followed a dramatic chase 10 days earlier, when a navy frigate attempted to prevent eight Chinese-flagged fishing vessels from escaping local waters. Eight got away one was detained by the fisheries vessel Victoria Mxenge

That chase exposed the problems facing South Africa, which has only 14 vessels available to patrol its 1.5-million square kilometres of ocean. This is an area larger than the country’s landmass. 

Technically speaking, only four of these — three inshore and one deep-sea patrol — vessels are mandated with preventing illegal fishing because this is the job of the fisheries department. But the navy does regular patrols to help the department and responds to any requests for help. 

Speaking at a seminar on policing the seas last month, Captain Andre Katerinic, the navy’s warfare director, predicted the problem: “Those trawlers will probably get a slap on the hand and go away.” The cause is the gap between the “high-fidelity legal requirements” of policing the ocean and the “low-fidelity implementation” that South Africa can put into practice. 

Katerinic said the spate of poaching was forcing the various departments involved in policing the seas to work together to pool their meagre resources. New units in the navy would be tasked with boarding vessels that seemed to be conducting suspicious activity, including switching off tracking beacons, something the two groups of Chinese-flagged fishing vessels had done. 

These measures, along with growing regional and international co-operation on policing illegal fishing, would help fight illegal fishing, he said. 

The three vessels have left South African waters, with the fisheries department saying they would continue their voyage to China. 

The Chinese embassy in South Africa has not answered questions as to whether it will detain the eight vessels that fled in early May if they return to their home ports.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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