South Africa

FISHERIES’ FORUM

Under Barbara Creecy, DEFF might not be deaf to local fishermen

The new Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries hosted a fisheries stakeholder forum on 19 June, where Minister Barbara Creecy and Deputy Minister Maggie Sotyu engaged local fishermen, traditional and religious leaders, as well as corporate representatives.

Approximately 300 people from the fisheries industry, some travelling all the way from Plettenberg Bay and even Durban, met in the Environmental Affairs building in the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town on Wednesday.

Tempers were high throughout the meeting, with stakeholders and community members often shouting to be heard and arguments breaking out over time and speaking allocations.

Despite the tense environment and occasional disruptions, members of the fisheries industry were able to put forward complaints and suggestions to Minister Barbara Creecy in her first stakeholders’ forum since becoming head of the Environment, Forestries and Fisheries Department.

Officials from what was previously the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) told Daily Maverick that Fisheries is a large and complicated portfolio which will require immediate attention.

In the past, factional wars between fisheries’ heads stalled the distribution of permits and allocation of fishing rights. At the same time, traditional fisherman complained that local permits took too long to acquire, that departmental offices are often not open, and that local fishermen were not always given the permits they need to fish for sea life in their area.

On Wednesday night, Deputy Minister Sotyu relayed a message she was given by the President, telling the crowd that “the President said I’m giving you 12 months to sort out Fisheries’ problems”.

From the crowd’s input, it was clear that there were many issues within the Fisheries Department.

Problems with the department itself were raised alongside allegations of corruption, wrongful granting and wrongful denial of permits. But the issue that garnered the most vocal support was that of small and indigenous fishermen.

Representatives of the Khoisan community put forward their disappointment at the department’s lack of indigenous representation, highlighting the fact that the first fishermen of South Africa should be involved in decisions made within the fisheries industry.

Tanyan Gradwell, a traditional Khoisan leader, addressed the minister directly, saying “we are not poachers, we are indigenous fishermen” and “we are not stakeholders, we are owners”.

Gradwell, along with other representatives of the Cape Khoisan community, demanded that the minister acknowledge that traditional fishermen have been killed by anti-poaching units without any compensation for the bereaved families.

Mary-Anne Mngomezulu, an activist living in Plettenberg Bay, told Daily Maverick that in the past, government officials have ignored the fact that local people were also part of the environment.

I spend some nights just listening to the ocean, it’s my church and my religion,” said Mngomezulu.

It’s not just about fishing, it’s about access to our ocean. It’s spiritual. Sometimes we go to sea and we don’t catch anything, but we don’t want people to limit our access to the sea.”

There also appeared to be animosity between local fishermen and environmental activist groups such as the WWF. Multiple comments from the floor indicated that local fishermen and small-scale industries want to be included in conversations around environmental issues and consulted before decisions are made.

Mngomezulu told Daily Maverick that the difference between preservation and conservation is access.

To preserve something means to keep people out. We want to conserve the ocean and the environment, but we don’t want to be kept out of it.”

Throughout the stakeholder forum, local and small-scale fishermen dominated the conversation, with occasional input from larger companies. After closing comments from the floor, Creecy summed up the issues between individuals, small fishermen, and larger corporations:

What you’re saying is, we don’t want to have to bash down this door, we want you to open it.”

To address issues of permits, Creecy asked the group if they would be interested in something similar to an open-tender process, wherein the allocation of permits, quotas and licences would be an open and public process.

Creecy justified her suggestion by saying that “when things are secret, even if something is not wrong, we all think it’s wrong”. Her comments were met with applause and agreement from the floor.

Creecy told Daily Maverick that she is excited to start her career leading DEFF, and pledged to hold another stakeholder meeting in the near future. She also gave the crowd her email address, encouraging those present to send her practical suggestions for change. DM

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