Seismic surveys on West Coast pose threat to small-scale fishers’ livelihoods and culture

A few weeks ago, Hilda Adams, a representative of small-scale fishers on the West Coast, was celebrating a court interdict that suspended Shell’s 3D seismic survey for oil and gas off the ecologically-sensitive Wild Coast.

Then, out of the blue, she heard about another planned and imminent marine seismic survey, this time right on her doorstep. “Boom, bang, there went our joy,” said Adams, of St Helena Bay. “I’m nearly 65 and it’s so tiring to fight all these threats to our oceans … which we are the custodians of.”

Searcher GeoData, which provides subsurface exploration data, has been awarded a reconnaissance permit for a multi-client speculative 2D and/or 3D marine seismic programme to explore for oil and gas over vast areas of the ocean stretching from Cape Point to the Namibian border in an area known as the Orange Basin

Its environmental management plan states the programme will potentially allow South Africa to “optimise its own indigenous resources to provide its identified oil and gas needs, rather than having to import, as at present”.

According to the Coastal Justice Network, the department of mineral resources and energy has allocated 11 rights holders, comprising 16 companies, exploration rights on the West Coast in the Orange Basin. These include Kosmos Energy/Shell/OK Energy; PetroSA; Total Energies/Shell/Petro SA and Sezigyn.

“It’s absolutely disgusting of the government to put profits for big oil and gas companies before the livelihoods, economic and social justice of small scale fishers,” fumed Adams, who said she is putting her energy into fighting Searcher’s exploration. “There is the aspect of sustainability, our fishing rights not yet served [and] the impact it will have on tourism too.”

The network said there is a reasonable apprehension of real harm to marine life, as evidenced by the Shell court interdict and a recent advisory by 11 leading marine scientists on the use of deep-sea seismic surveys to explore for oil and gas deposits in South African waters. 

“Of particular concern for small-scale fishers, is the impact these surveys will have on the snoek fishery, which forms the basis of their livelihood. The surveys will be conducted directly within the snoek migration routes and breeding habitat,” it said.

Disruptive technologies

In its advisory, the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies said the authority of the department of mineral resources and energy to exclusively issue exploration permits without the concurrence of the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment, should be revoked. 

“Shell’s planned seismic operations, similar to past and ongoing explorations along our coastline, use seismic air guns to probe for the presence of shale gas deposits. These airgun arrays are considered ‘disruptive technologies’ which can cause acoustic disturbance over 3 000km from the survey vessels,” it said.

“This stream of energy is significant in an aquatic environment where sound waves travel much further than in air, and where most wildlife relies on acoustic communication throughout their life cycles. It, therefore, constitutes noise pollution and a threat to marine life behavioural patterns and/or survival.”

Seismic surveys have been implicated in altering the behaviour of marine life such as whales and dolphins attempting to escape airgun surveys, altering penguin behaviour and decimating larval krill populations, which are key prey for species such as humpback whales. 

“Despite such potentially harmful consequences, no formal research on the effects of seismic surveys have been conducted in South Africa and the exact effects on the marine environment — and by default the people who depend on marine resources — remain largely unknown,” the advisory said.

Court battle

Last week, small-scale fishers wrote to mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe, informing him that most, if not all of them were not aware of the application for a reconnaissance permit until a petition emerged on social media earlier this month. 

“They have not bothered to consult us and engage us on this proposed survey or explain it to us … We were not provided with any information about it. In addition, we are informed by support organisations that they have not undertaken an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and obtained environmental authorisation in terms of the National Environmental Management Act,” their letter read.

The Legal Resources Centre, acting on behalf of West Coast fishers, and Richard Spoor Inc, which is representing civil society movement We Are South Africans, are now preparing to haul Mantashe and Searcher to court, to seek an urgent interdict to halt the programme because it does not have a valid environmental authorisation and permit.

In response to a recent letter of demand from the LRC, Searcher’s attorneys, Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, said it had all the required regulatory approvals in place, would proceed with its programme and oppose any high court proceedings. 

Potential impacts assessed

In its public notice on 15 December, Searcher said its reconnaissance permit was granted on the approval of its submitted environmental management plan, which encompassed an assessment of the potential effect on marine fauna and fisheries active in the area “along with the identification of measures to avoid and mitigate these potential impacts”, as provided from independent specialists. 

Its seismic vessel will be fitted with passive acoustic monitoring technology, which detects animals through their vocalisation, with dedicated 24-hour PAM observers, and the survey operations will be monitored by marine mammal observers and a fisheries liaison officer for the duration of the survey.

The approval process included a formal 30-day public review and comment period with comments considered by the issuing authority prior to approving the permit. The environmental management plan describes how eight written submissions were received. It states that there is “no anticipated impact on the small-scale fishing sector, which is unlikely to range beyond … 5.6km from the coastline; thus, falling inshore of the proposed 2D survey area”.

Existential threat

Dr Dylan McGarry, senior researcher at the Environmental Learning Research Centre at Rhodes University, which is a member of the Coastal Justice Network, said there is no information available on any website about the survey, other than the letter from the Petroleum Agency SA granting Searcher the permit and the notification of the grant.

“When we asked for access to these documents, we were given passwords to protected documents (over 900 pages long) that we could only read for 24 hours, as the password link expired. How are fishers to read a 900 page document in 24 hours that is only in English … This lack of consultation and of fisher communities is a direct violation of their rights.”

Seismic surveys, he said, pose an “existential threat” to the rich heritage of the country’s fishing cultures. “Seismic surveys are deeply concerning, particularly for small-scale fisher cooperatives and the communities they support.  

“There is this narrative that is being spun that oil and gas exploration will be beneficial to the country but after over a century of land-based heavy mineral and fossil fuel extraction, we know what is left in the wake of such activities. The poorest and most vulnerable sector of society are left destitute and worse off.”

West Coast ecosystems support snoek, rock lobster and many other species of fish that sustain the livelihoods of over 30 small-scale fishing cooperatives and their communities.  “What’s even more concerning and harder to quantify is the impact that oil and gas harvesting in the ocean has on cultural heritage.” 

This is because fishing for small-scale fishing communities along the West Coast is not just an economic activity, “it is deeply entwined with Cape Malay, Afrikaaps, and Brown history in the country. Fishing culture is wrapped up in language, in art (particularly culinary heritage), in family ritual and other important meaning making and identity-laden activities that have been passed down over generations.” 

Fishing has historically been deeply entwined with activism and a space where liberation could be felt from the oppressive forces of colonialsm and apartheid. “Fishing cultures, therefore, are part of our marine heritage and any threat to fishing culture, threatens the heritage of South Africa. You can imagine the existential threat this places on small-scale fishing communities.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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