Find the middle ground on seismic surveys, says fishing group

The South African United Fishing Front has sent an open letter to Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe and Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy calling for a platform to constructively discuss seismic surveys.

In his letter, Pedro Garcia, the organisation’s chairperson, said the fishing community was “a football in the middle” of the ongoing controversy playing itself out in the courts over the seismic surveys used by the petroleum industry to map potential deposits of oil and gas under the seabed.

“On the one side, the argument is that the seismic surveys are as harmless (or beneficial) as mother’s milk, and on the other side, that this exploration will have catastrophic and irreparable consequences to the environment,” said Garcia. “Where is the middle ground?”.

Last Monday, the Western Cape high court ordered that the interim interdict for Searcher Seismic’s survey off the West Coast remain in place. It was granted in favour of 14 applicants, which include the Steenberg’s Cove Fishing Community, the Aukatowa Small-Scale Fisheries Cooperative and Coastal Links Langebaan. 

On Thursday last week, the high court in Makhanda ruled that the interim interdict granted to Wild Coast small-scale fishers on 28 December, temporarily blocking Shell’s seismic survey, remained in place. 

“To be clear, we firmly believe that the future for not just us South Africans, but for all of humanity, is to move from fossil fuels towards renewable energy,” Garcia wrote. “Climate change is real. Further to that, the days of the government giving big industry free and unfettered access to our natural resources often with grave environmental consequences is over.”

Arguments about the development of oil and gas cannot be reduced to how it only affects small-scale fishers, he said. “We also need to consider what is in the best interest of our country, given our present circumstances. So, the question is, where is the middle road, dear ministers?”

There are too many unanswered questions, including mitigation protocols and equity plans that will guarantee sustainable livelihoods for fishers and fishing communities, Garcia said.

Given South Africa’s precarious economic status and the unprecedented extreme levels of unemployment associated with it, he wondered whether there was an opportunity for these diverse sectors to co-exist without causing irreparable harm.

“If there are economic benefits in the development of the oil and gas industry, how will these economic benefits reach small-scale fishing communities, in a manner that is equitable, accountable and fair?”

Garcia told the Mail & Guardian that he had not yet received a response from the ministers.

 “We are hoping to have our voices heard … We have to look at the possibilities of coexistence without causing irreparable harm to marine resources or to the environment. These extremes are not good for the country or for the fishing industry for that matter.”

Garcia said his letter should not be viewed as an endorsement or rejection of the ongoing seismic survey debacle: “We want to make informed decisions, find the truth, on our terms.”

Christian Adams, of the Steenberg’s Cove Fishing Community, said: “We don’t feel like we are a football in the middle. I actually feel now, because of the focus in these two cases [Searcher Seismic and Shell], the story of the fishers is being more widely broadcast.

“People are starting to understand that there is a relationship between us, as the small-scale fishers, and the ocean and the subsequent harvesting of the species that we have got. We need to look at fishers losing their livelihoods and access to resources. The focus should be on fishers wherever they are in South Africa, not on organisations and not on the government,” he said.

The legal battle against Searcher Seismic, Adams said, is about “the cultural heritage, the traditions we have and the connections that we have as small-scale fishers with the ocean. So, our case mustn’t be portrayed as a case of environmentalists against the oil and gas industry, or the capitalist system.

Yes, we do focus a lot on the environment because it’s a very sensitive environment that we operate in. And we’re now finding that we have a lot of scientists coming forward with information and opposing the seismic surveys, especially citing snoek and tuna — the mainstay of our income — as part of their examples of what might be negatively affected because of these surveys.”

There is “no way” that small-scale fishers can co-exist with the oil and gas sector, Adams said. “There’s no area in the world where oil and gas drilling is done in a safe manner. We’ve seen too many examples of things going wrong.”

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

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