West Coast fishers hail court victory halting seismic survey

Small-scale fishers on the West Coast have won their first legal battle against a planned seismic survey in the region’s waters and are “ready for war” to defend their environmental rights, livelihoods, food security and cultural beliefs.

On Monday, the Western Cape high court ordered Australian-based geoscience data supplier Searcher Seismic and its UK division, Searcher Geodata, to temporarily halt its 180-day seismic survey along the West Coast. 

Searcher GeoData has been awarded a reconnaissance permit for a multi-client speculative 2D and 3D marine seismic survey programme to search for oil and gas deposits under the seabed in the Atlantic Ocean.

The interim interdict that Judge Daniel Thulare granted against Searcher is pending the outcome of the interim interdict application that was launched on 21 January.

‘Huge victory’

Among the 14 applicants in the matter are the Steenberg’s Cove Small-Scale Fisheries Cooperative, Aukatowa Small-Scale Fisheries Cooperative, Coastal Links Langebaan, civil society movement We Are South Africans and the Green Connection. They are represented by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) and Richard Spoor Attorneys

The first and second respondents are Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe and Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, and the Petroleum Agency South Africa, respectively.

The urgent interdict application will be heard on 7 March. “For us, it’s a step in the right direction that at least until 7 March, they must stop the seismic blasting,” Christian Adams of the Steenberg Cove Small-Scale Fishers Cooperative told the Mail & Guardian. 

“As West Coast fishers, that’s a huge victory: just to have our voices heard, even though it had to be through the system of courts and not through dialogue with our respective departments or with the company itself. We’ve won the first battle and we are ready for this war … We are the primary users of the ocean, yet we are not respected to be deemed important enough to be part of the consultation.” 

Discontinue activities

The applicants’ legal papers describe how Searcher’s “blasting plans are wide and deep” covering about 297 087km2, “almost 50 times greater in extent than those in issue in the case of the recent Shell decision” and across water depthsy ranging from 100m to 4 500m. 

Thulare said Searcher Geodata, Searcher Seismic and BGP Pioneer — the survey vessel — were “directed forthwith to discontinue any activities intended to give effect to or related to the seismic survey of the West and South West coast that commenced on or about 24 January”. They were ordered jointly to pay the costs of the hearing. 

Searcher, Thulare said, must file answering affidavits by Thursday; the other respondents must file any answering or explanatory affidavits on 14 February, with the applicants filing replying affidavits by 25 February.

On Tuesday, Katrina Devlin, the principal adviser of operations at Searcher, said: “Searcher wishes to advise that we respect the laws of South Africa, as such, and in compliance with the court orders, we have ceased acquisition in South African waters. As this matter is pending before the court, Searcher has no further comment at present, however, we may consider issuing a media statement in due course.”

‘Stunning victory’

The LRC described Monday’s outcome as “another stunning victory” for people who live along the country’s coast. “Importantly for these fishers, fishing is not just a means of generating income: it is their way of life. Despite this, Searcher did not take any meaningful consultation with the affected communities and failed entirely to get environmental authorisation under the National Environmental Management Act,” it said. 

The court was presented with expert evidence that the survey could have a severe effect not only on people, but also on the marine and bird life in the area, the LRC said.

The case has been brought in two parts. Part A deals with an interim interdict to prohibit Searcher from conducting the seismic survey; Part B is a review of the permit granted to Searcher by Mantashe.

Respecting the ocean

Adams said: “We know, from the scientists that we’ve heard, that the blasting travels for a very long distance under water so we feel the harm that will be caused to the fish that travel on those routes will be irreparable. We, as fishers, can’t afford it, because we don’t know anything else. 

“This is what we know how to do to the best of our ability … And we don’t need other skills: we are very skilled as fishers. We know how to fish and we know through fishing, how to put bread on the table for our children. It’s only through the generational passing down of this set of skills, of knowing the ocean and respecting the ocean, that we know what we know today.”

Gilbert Martin, the founder of We Are South Africans, said the halt to the survey is “a proud moment for us”. 

“What’s important to know is what we’re doing is not about us as organisations; it’s really about the communities, businesses, individuals, farmers and the fisher folk affected by this. The people are the ones behind this fight, who are saying ‘no, we don’t want this’, and the government has to listen. And if it is not going to listen, we’re going to put them in a position where they will have to listen.”

Delicate ecosystem

In their heads of argument, the applicants’ legal team described how the applicants have been forced to bring the application because of the state’s failure to uphold the Constitution and environmental legislation and “Searcher’s insistence on proceeding with the seismic blasting regardless of this fact”.  

The seismic survey has started and the blasting will probably cause significant and irreparable harm to marine and bird life in the affected areas, it states. “This, in turn, will negatively impact upon the constitutional and customary rights of coastal communities, which includes the environmental rights, their livelihoods, their food security and their cultural beliefs.”

The case is not isolated. “There has been an increase in prospecting and mining applications and activity along the coastline. The harm that is likely to arise from the seismic blasting to be conducted by Searcher will be exacerbated by the effects of previous mining and prospecting activities in the same area,” the papers state. 

The West Coast is a delicate ecosystem and any additional stress could “break” the system. “That ecosystem comprises the oceanic environment, the marine and bird life and importantly, the humans who fish those waters to feed themselves and to make a modest living. 

“That being the case, any party who seeks to conduct exploration and reconnaissance activities must consider the impact the seismic blasting will have on the ecosystem as a whole and must include the impact on the humans who fish those waters, like the applicants.”

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

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