SPECIAL FEATURE

Local fishers and activists want Langebaan fish farms stopped —but government mussels in

By Tessa Knight and Noah Tobias 13 October 2019

Staff feed fish at the Molapong test site in Saldanha Bay. (Photo: Noah Tobias)

Langebaan, up the West Coast, is a well-known spot for tourists and kite surfers, but it is primarily a fishing village with small-scale fishers making a living off snoek and mullet. Now, under Operation Phakisa, it’s on the verge of becoming a hub for fish farms.

Just under two hours’ drive from Cape Town, Langebaan is nestled between fynbos-covered hills, a single-carriage highway and one of the world’s only salt-water lagoons and a sensitive ecosystem. The town has a population of fewer than 10,000 people, although those numbers swell when the summer months roll in.

Langebaan’s closest neighbour is Saldanha Bay, about 20km away with a population of about 30,000. Both towns revolve around the ocean and have established fishing communities with histories spanning thousands of years.

Traditionally, men would go out to sea at all hours of the night and bring home fish for women to clean and gut. The cycle changes if it is snoek season or mullet season, but the ritual has remained the same for as long as the current generation can remember.

Now these very same fishers from Langebaan and Saldanha are opposing an approved plan to develop floating fish factories on an industrial scale, demanding their rights to the lagoon and bay area. The fishers are supporting local activists – grouped together as Save Langebaan Lagoon – who have filed papers with the High Court to oppose the aquaculture development. The group has cited potential ecological and environmental degradation of protected marine areas containing vulnerable species, loss of fishing space and negative impacts on tourism as the primary reasons for developments to be halted.

The ABCs of ADZs

In 2014, then president Jacob Zuma launched Operation Phakisa, a programme intended to stimulate job creation and promote food security by investing millions in ocean aquaculture, or fish farming.

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), previously Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), develops and facilitates aquaculture through the use of Aquaculture Development Zones (ADZ), areas set aside exclusively for fish farming. The department identifies suitable ADZs by looking at the location of the site, as well as the potential socio-economic and environmental effects of building a farm there, according to the Aquaculture Development Bill of 2018.

South Africa has a particularly exposed coastline and a limited number of sheltered bays, so finding a workable plot of ocean is difficult. Saldanha Bay, however, is a prime site for business, because it is shielded from the violent storms that might capsize cages elsewhere. The bay has been producing farmed shellfish since the 1980s, and, according to statements released by DAFF, is responsible for up to 50% of South Africa’s current marine aquaculture.

But Saldanha Bay lies at the mouth of Langebaan Lagoon, one of only three self-sustaining pure saltwater lagoons in the world. No rivers or freshwater sources supply the lagoon, it is fed entirely by water from Saldanha Bay. The lagoon is a RAMSAR site, a special designation awarded to wetlands that support vulnerable endangered species, and it regularly hosts thousands of diverse seabirds. It is a sensitive ecosystem, and local residents allege the construction of a fish farm could cause it to fall apart.

A bird’s-eye view of Saldanha Bay, which feeds into the Langebaan Lagoon (bottom right). Each shaded area represents a proposed fish farm or mussel and oyster farm.

In 2016, DAFF announced plans for an ADZ in Saldanha Bay, and in January 2018, the Department of Environmental Affairs granted an Environmental Authorisation to two companies, Molapong Aquaculture and Southern Cross Salmon Farming.

The ADZ was originally set to be 1,404 hectares, but in order to avoid ecological and socio-economic impacts that would affect both Saldanha Bay and Langebaan Lagoon due to the interconnectivity of the two water sources, both companies scaled down their plans to fit into a new area of 884 hectares (about 880 rugby fields). Of this, about 29% is suitable for fish farming, or the equivalent of about 250 rugby fields. The rest of the ADZ will be used for more mussel and oyster farming.

Currently, only Molapong has kicked off production, starting a trial farm of eight trout cages opposite the Mykonos Yacht Club that will eventually be moved to the allocated fish farming area.

Seals lounge on the cages, enticed by the prospect of an easy meal. Locals worry they will gorge on the local fish population once the nets turn them away. (Photo: Noah Tobias)

The court case

Soon after the government announced plans to create a Saldanha Bay ADZ, local residents formed Save Langebaan Lagoon (SLL), the action group intended to stop the creation of the aquaculture. SLL submitted two formal letters of objection, arguing that the community was insufficiently consulted and that the environmental impacts of the fish farm had been drastically understated in DAFF’s reports.

Both companies also agreed to pursue a “phase-in” approach, which involves gradual increases in the number of fish farmed and annual monitoring of the sediment under their cages. This method is intended to mitigate the ecological impacts of maintaining and using aquaculture, which can range from red tides to the breakout of harmful bacteria from fish waste. But activists and environmentalists argue it is not enough.

The science around the farm’s environmental impact is complicated and contested. Locals worry that accumulated fish and food waste on the ocean floor will be resuspended into the water, suffocating native fish and promoting the growth of dangerous algae and bacteria. DAFF, on the other hand, is confident that the refuse will not be washed into the lagoon.

In February 2018, SLL submitted an official appeal to the Department of Environmental Affairs. The late Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa dismissed the group’s appeal, and SLL subsequently began mobilising for a court case.

Overall, both the fishers’ and the activists’ primary concern is that of the fish farm. While they would prefer the current mussel and oysters farms do not increase in size, they are less focused on the proposed 600 rugby fields of bivalve farming than they are on the fish farming, which they believe will have a greater environmental and socio-economic impact on local communities.

Aquaculture: the global picture

The fishers’ voices

The proposed aquaculture puts two sets of local fishers at risk – those who fish primarily in the Langebaan lagoon, and those who fish in the larger Saldanha Bay area.

Daily Maverick spoke to a number of representatives from both areas to ascertain how fishers feel about the growing aquaculture.

Solene Smith, 62, chairwoman of Coastal Links Langebaan.

Solene Smith, 62, comes from a family of fishers. Three of her relatives have died at sea, and her large family of biological and foster children all survive off fishing. Smith is also the chairwoman of Coastal Links Langebaan, an organisation that fights for the livelihood of small-scale fishers in the Western Cape and Northern Cape and represents more than 4,000 fishers in over 100 towns.

We don’t oppose Operation Phakisa, but we want more dialogue. People need to talk to us,” said Smith. “We’ve been looking after our lagoon for years, and we know it is ours because we were born and bred here, and so were our parents and grandparents.”

Smith and her fishers are worried about both the environmental impact of the aquaculture and the spatial impact. Their heritage is tied to the lagoon, and they are frustrated that they have to continually fight for access to something they feel should belong to them.

You know, we used to only fish during the week, not the weekend. We want to give the fish time off,” said Smith. “People laugh now but that’s what we did, we respected the lagoon.”

Norton Dowries has lived in Langebaan his entire life. Once he was unable to go out on the ocean, he took to town halls and community meetings, becoming an enthusiastic advocate for fisher’s rights. (Photo: Noah Tobias)

At 64, Norton Dowries no longer goes out to sea to fish, claiming he is “too old”. Now, he is a vocal activist for fishers’ rights and vice-secretary of the Western Cape Coastal Links Branch. When we met Dowries, he pointed to what is now a restaurant on the corner of one of Langebaan’s main streets, saying: “I was born just there. That was before we were moved out.”

Under apartheid, the local fishing communities in Langebaan and Saldanha Bay were moved off prime land located near the lagoon and the bay area. But, according to Dowries, they were still allowed to fish in the area.

Even during apartheid we were allowed to fish in the lagoon, we could go out whenever and catch whatever we want. Now you need a permit, and the permit is expensive, and you already can’t fish in all of the lagoon. Only some places.

The fishermen know where the fish is and where the fish are going, we just follow them. And now we have less space because of the farm, and we also have to consider climate change as well. Soon there won’t be anywhere to fish.”

So far, the fishers have already encountered issues with an increased seal population. Globally, aquaculture has tended to attract curious seals (Scotland had such a problem in 2011 that Scottish fish farmers shot 461 seals to protect their farms). The prospect of a hectare-wide cage of immobile fish is too difficult to ignore. Inge Frost, a local resident and founder of Save Langebaan Lagoon, said: “It’s like putting a KFC in the middle of the sea, they can smell it but they can’t access it. So they eat the stale McDonald’s nearby.”

Deon Warnick and his son run a fishing company out of their home in Langebaan, selling the day’s catch to locals. (Photo: Noah Tobias)

Deon Warnick, who operates a fishing company called Vars Vis from his home in Langebaan, says the increase in seals in the area has taken its toll on his nets.

The seals is destroying the nets. When the fish is in the nets, the seals grab the nets and break them,” Warnick told Daily Maverick.

The local community, including the fishers, are not convinced they will be offered jobs. All four of the fishers interviewed said they had not seen any jobs advertised in their community. When asked if he would accept a job working on the fish farm, 54-year-old Warnick responded with a resolute “No!”

I don’t do that. I fish, I don’t farm fish,” he explained.

Professor Merle Sowman, head of the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Cape Town, told Daily Maverick that government and business should respect small-scale fishers’ desires to “continue fishing the way they always have”.

She said the fishers are unsure of the legitimacy behind the promise of job creation.

They are sceptical because they’re not convinced that the promises of job possibilities and of skills development will necessarily filter down to them, and there have been other proposals and other developments where in fact promises were made and they haven’t benefited.”

Business responds

*Andrew Maclachlan is the former director of Southern Cross Salmon Farming, one of the two companies trying to further the aquaculture industry in the area. Daily Maverick attempted to contact representatives from Molapong via email and phone, but at the time of publishing had not received a response.

According to Maclachlan – who is now a shareholder at the company –  the environmental issues that SLL and local fishers have brought to the fore are exaggerated.

Any aquaculture farm cannot afford for the environment around that farm to be damaged, because farming fish needs very good quality water, otherwise that operation will not succeed and it will go bad. And that’s a lot of wasted money. So if you stuff up the environment around your fish farm you will go bankrupt,” Maclachlan told Daily Maverick.

He also indicated that escapee fish will not be a problem for local fishers.

Escapees aren’t going to survive,” said Maclachlan. “They have never had to swim against currents because they have been in a cage their whole life.”

But according to both Smith and Carmelita Mostert, Coastal Links Saldanha Bay chairperson, fishers from both areas have already caught alien fish in their nets. Although Maclachlan emphasised that escaped fish will not know how to catch their own food, Smith and Mostert are worried that escaped carnivorous fish will start to eat local fish.

Maclachlan also wants to put to bed concerns over what the captive fish are fed. Local activists have alleged that the food is filled with hormones and antibiotics, but DEFF regulations prohibit the inclusion of medicines in feed released into open waters.

Maclachlan emphasised that the new farms will create at least 900 new jobs for Langebaan and Saldanha Bay residents. He also suggested that current fishers will be able to continue fishing around the new farms, and will not be forced out of work.

There is space for them to fish in between the mussel farms,” Maclachlan told Daily Maverick.

But, according to Frost and Save Langebaan Lagoon, the new aquaculture will decrease tourism to the area, which in turn will have a negative impact on the economy and job creation.

What happens next?

Save Langebaan Lagoon, with support from the Saldanha Bay and Langebaan Coastal Links groups, does not yet have a court date. It would appear there is now a stalemate hanging over the lagoon, with neither side willing to budge.

But according to Maclachlan, if the project goes ahead and at any point there is an indication it is detrimentally impacting the environment, “of course we will pull the plug”. DM

*This article was amended for accurater reflection of a title on 28 October, 2019.

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