Virus leaves fishing high and dry

With no relaxation of restrictions for South Africa’s recreational fishing sector when the country moves to Covid-19 level 4 on May 1, thousands of subsistence fishers will remain under lockdown, and charter operators are preparing to close up shop for good.

Commercial fishing is permitted and further relaxations for the industry are impending, but there is no relief for other people who rely on fishing for an income. 

The recreational fishing industry, which employs about 94  000 people and generates about R36-billion a year, has written to President Cyril Rampahosa’s national command council requesting that he include it among those who will be allowed to operate in a restricted form from the beginning of May.

They want charter boats to be allowed to operate at limited capacity to save jobs and that South Africa’s 1.3-million licenced recreational fishers be allowed to fish for the pot and for exercise and mental well being. They also want tackle and bait shops to be allowed to operate with a maximum of five customers at a time. 

In a letter to the national command council the South African Consolidated Recreational Angling Association said industry bodies aligned to it believed that it was necessary to give fishing level 4 status to save jobs and allow people to put food on the table.

It said that fishing should be permitted because it would be easy to maintain social distancing as it was a “solitary pursuit” — it was neither a spectator nor a contact sport, which attracts people in groups.

The organisation said more than 94 000 jobs were at risk, and people who depended on their catch for survival were being badly compromised. Should fishing be permitted, licensed anglers would be willing to abide by the curfew.

Fishing charter operator Jakes van den Berg, who has been in the business for 30 years, said that unless they can get back in the water soon and start earning money, the Covid-19 lockdown will kill off Durban’s charter industry.

Van den Berg, who employs three people, normally takes 12-person fishing charters to sea at weekends, making about R35 000 a month out of his 10m craft. 

His clientele are mainly regulars, most of whom fish for the pot as much as for sport, and rely on their catch to supplement their monthly grocery shopping with fresh fish, which they freeze and use during the month.

Van den Berg hasn’t worked since the lockdown started and will be forced to remove his boat from the Wilson’s Wharf marina on May 15 and park it at his Pinetown home because he cannot afford the R6 500 monthly rent at the marina.

“I am about to fold. The whole industry is about to fold. I’m about to lose my house, my boat, the lot,’’ he said. “The expenses are too high if I’m not working. 

“There are those guys who are weekend warriors, who are only looking at covering their expenses. I survive off what I make from charters. This is all that I have.”

Apart from marina rent of R6 500, Van den Berg pays R8 500 a month on the two R500 000 motors on his boat and R3 500 for insurance, despite being off the water.

“The marina doesn’t want to play ball with us so I’ll have to pack up on the 15th and keep the boat in the yard. It’s going to cost me R25 000 to get it out of the water and move it home,” he said. “I can’t even sell the boat. Everybody is selling at the moment. We all have the same problem. 

“There’s no help from the government for us. Nothing,” he said. “We are hoping that they will lift some of the restrictions and let us operate. We don’t mind taking smaller groups, as long as we can get to work. I normally take out 12 people. If I can at least take six, that will be something,” he said.

If not, Van den Berg has lined up a job as a night shift mill supervisor on a salary of R6 000 a month. “It’s something, but I will barely be able to exist. There’s no way I will ever be able to recover from this and start over,” he said.

Although commercial fishing has continued, it has also been hit hard by the lockdown, with some operators reporting a 50% loss of revenue over the past month because the restaurant industry has shut down and there’s a lower demand from housebound consumers.

Durban commercial operator Daryl Bronkhorst said the drop in demand for fish, coupled with the difficulty in getting crew members to work and securing parts and supplies, made operating under lockdown “very difficult”.

Bronkhorst employs five crew, who make daily trips out of Durban harbour.

A Gauteng distributor Bronkhorst normally supplies several times a week has stopped operating because the restaurant business has shut down and local distributors have cut their orders for the same reasons. 

Fish shops have also reduced their orders because customer numbers have dropped as a result of the travel restrictions.

“We are lucky in that we can still operate, but things are tough. We are having big problems with crew getting to work because of the transport times and sales are dwindling because restaurants are closed. We are working, but I would say at around 50 percent of normal,” Bronkhorst said.

Although some demand for fresh fish remains, the crayfish, crab and prawn market has almost completely collapsed as a result of no local and international demand. Local operators are cutting staff numbers and stockpiling their catch in the hope that the restrictions will eventually be lifted, opening up their usual markets.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper

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