Maverick Citizen: Environment

Struggling small-scale fishers are thrown a lifeline by pilot project

By Jorisna Bonthuys 9 November 2020

Many structural and distributional inequalities still pin fishing communities in a poverty trap, says the writer. (Photo: Getty Images / Gallo Images)

The economic downturn resulting from Covid-19 has been devastating for many fishing communities reliant on export markets. Yet, it is possible to unlock new beginnings for small-scale fishers by linking them to a fair and transparent marketplace, a pilot project shows.

Efforts to create space for marginalised small-scale fishers have been dealt a heavy blow by Covid-19. 

The pandemic has come at a considerable price, particularly for those who are dependent on West Coast rock lobster (also called “crayfish” or kreef), a high-value marine resource, largely exported to Asia.

Adverse consequences include the shutdown of fisheries, the knock-on effects of market disruptions, and further delays in implementing the government’s small-scale fishing policy.

The fallout from the pandemic underlines the urgent need to ensure deep structural reforms in the sector to support traditional fishers, says Dr Serge Raemaekers, managing director of ABALOBI. 

“The lobster value chain highlights the glaring contradictions inherent in our capital-intensive globalised food system, where we regard lobster as a commodity that can be traded much in the same way stock traders are involved in trading equity securities,” he says. 

ABALOBI, a fisher-driven social enterprise based in Cape Town, employs technology to disrupt the dynamics of the value and supply chain of local small-scale fisheries. Through a series of connected apps, it ensures traceability by linking fishers directly to the marketplace selling their specific basket of species at a fair and transparent price.

“Small-scale fishers are in crisis,” Raemaekers says. “They’re grieving because their type of fishery is in serious decline. They’re grieving because of all the social ills connected to this and what this means for their way of life.”

Historic overexploitation of crayfish and the slow recognition of their rights – combined with strong market forces feeding an export industry and now an increasingly important illegal industry – have resulted in a crisis in this industry, with many stakeholders having advocated for fishery and market closures.

Creating space for small-scale fishers

But there is hope on the horizon. Efforts to create space for traditional fishers operating in this sector prove it is possible to start fishing for more sustainable futures. This is apparent in ABALOBI’s recent documentary Coding for Crayfish.

Although the documentary was filmed before the pandemic hit local shores, this story is “more relevant now than ever”, given the ongoing ripple effects of the pandemic on fishing communities, Raemaekers believes.

It tells the story of how David Shoshola, 54, and other traditional fisherfolk on the West Coast embraced simple but integrated technologies to develop their own community-supported fisheries, linked to restaurants.

Shoshola, a third-generation fisherman from the fishing town of Lambert’s Bay, is part of a growing community of small-scale fishers working with ABALOBI. “I was just a boy when I first fell in love with the ocean,” he says. “Now, there is salt water in my veins.

“We grew up with kreef and there was lots of it here,” Shoshola recalls. “My dad brought four or five large ones home after a fishing trip. Back then, it was considered the poor man’s food. Now, I simply cannot afford it. There is also much less kreef around. I am deeply concerned about this.”

Enabling change for good

The pilot project was launched during the 2018/2019 crayfish season to test ABALOBI’s traceability and transparency tools in the context of trade in this controversial resource.

At first, the project involved the participation of five small-scale fishers who were operating, in legislative terms, under interim relief measures. ABALOBI connected them to 11 restaurants, including chef Kobus van der Merwe’s acclaimed Wolfgat in Paternoster. During the next crayfish season, six small-scale fishers and 15 restaurants joined in.

The fishers used the ABALOBI platform to market and sell their entire government-sanctioned basket of species to these restaurants, without the drain of the middleman or the pressure to have their catch traded on the global market.

ABALOBI’s approach is based on the belief that small-scale fishers involved in a community-driven fisheries improvement project should be able to sell their entire basket of species (legally allocated to them) in a fully traceable manner, without excluding the minimal portion of this basket that constitutes species listed as “overfished” in consumer guides. Their theory of change is centred on unlocking socio-economic benefits while activating stewardship, robust data collection and formalising fisheries’ rebuilding strategies from the bottom up.

“Initially, it took a leap of faith for fishers to join the project,” says Chris Kastern, ABALOBI’s head of business development. 

“It was a massive risk for them not to allocate their catch to a marketer before the season started.

“The chefs also put their reputation on the line by selling this culturally significant but overfished species. Now, there is increased interest among fishers and restaurants alike to join this programme. We need to scale this up and extend the bridge between fishers and restaurants, in an effort to get all legal quota through fully traceable supply chains and thereby severely restricting the opportunity for illegal trade to persist.”

“The ability to trace seafood and account for its journey from hook to cook is a critical element in transforming our food system in a way that small-scale fishers can benefit from directly,” Raemaekers points out.

In the ABALOBI platform, fishers sell a percentage of their catch on the ABALOBI Marketplace for a fair price, while they can also afford to keep some home for food or local sale and barter.

Last year, ABALOBI Marketplace facilitated sales of R4.5-million in fish to restaurants. More than 350 fisher families reaped the benefits, earning up to four times more than they did before the initiative, enabling them to pay off debt to loan sharks, or invest in their household and children’s education.

Until the restaurant business came to a halt due to the national lockdown, ABALOBI was facilitating traditional fishers’ supply of responsibly-caught fish to chefs at more than 250 Cape Town and Johannesburg-based restaurants.

During the lockdown, ABALOBI changed gears and pivoted its strategy. Participating fishers started to do real-time traceable home deliveries to customers using the app directly, and to supply retailers and work with other NGOs to channel their catch to those in need.

Fishing in troubled waters

Once the traditional food of working-class and poor coastal communities, West Coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii) has, in recent decades, become a high-value export for the industrial fishing sector. Most of the catch is traded and exported to the Far East crayfish is relished in restaurants in China and elsewhere in Asia.

After decades of overfishing and rampant poaching, the lobster population is in dire straits. The resource remains at a dangerously low level: lobster population models show only 1.7% remaining of the abundance before large-scale harvesting commenced just a century ago.

The status of this resource has declined steadily over the last few decades. Despite efforts since 1997 to promote some recovery, the abundance of crayfish has dropped by some 45% over this period, with no confirmed indication of any clear turnaround.

“The numbers are pathetically low – it’s worse than those for abalone,” says Emeritus Professor Doug Butterworth from the University of Cape Town’s Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. 

“The poaching component has gotten out of control; it is big business among criminal gangs. Crayfish is the new abalone.” 

Shoshola agrees: “The pearlies, the abalone… The net is getting tighter around the abalone poachers, so their focus is changing to kreef. Greediness is having a serious effect on kreef in our area. If things carry on like this, there will soon be nothing left for anyone.”

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries’ latest analysis indicates that illegal, under-reported and unregulated fishing currently extracts between 700 and 1,200 tons of West Coast rock lobster a year.

In 2019, the amount poached was roughly similar to the amount legally fished. “Although this went down from probably over 2,000 tons in 2005 to about 1,000 tons at the moment, this is still substantial compared to legal catches,” says Butterworth.

In the past decade, the kreef value chain has become intertwined with the illegal abalone industry, submerging itself in the toxic combination of illegal drugs, loan sharks, poor fisheries monitoring, weak law enforcement and border controls, and high levels of corruption.

“Most of the poaching is not done by poor, starving people trying to put food on the table for their children,” Butterworth emphasises. “It’s conducted by organised criminal gangs and organised crime.”

There is a need for “considerable caution” in managing kreef stocks, given the boom in its illegal trade, Butterworth argues. “We need to reduce poaching, reduce the legal catch, ensure fully traceable supply chains and give the resource a better chance of recovery.”

The unfair status quo

The struggle to ensure traditional fishers have access to marine resources is “far from over”, says Hilda Adams from the Weskusmandjie cooperative. 

“We need radical economic transformation and rebalance towards equal allocations to all stakeholders,” she says. “We also need to close the gap between big companies and small-scale traditional fishers operating near shore to ensure equality in allocating rights.”

After the first democratic elections in 1994, small-scale fishers hoped their access to marine resources, including crayfish, would increase. However, control of the crayfish value chain remained mainly in the hands of the established industry that centralised processing and export.

“They stigmatised our small-scale fishers as poachers,” Adams says. “We had to fight to be recognised and the battle seems ongoing.”

South Africa does have a small-scale fishing policy on paper. But efforts to implement it have been slow due to major stumbling blocks. These include limited resources (which have to be split among fishing sectors), the lack of incentives for change in value and supply chains, and pushback from the organised commercial sector.

Many traditional fishers have been waiting for the security of tenure since 1994. In the Western Cape, 2,965 fishers are operating on interim relief permits. Registration of small-scale fisher cooperatives is currently underway, with the hope a new approach will be implemented ahead of the next lobster season which was recently announced.

Today, many structural and distributional inequalities still pin fishing communities in a poverty trap. 

“Small-scale fishers remain marginalised in the value chain, with little to no control over the price of their catch, having to accept whatever they are offered,” Kastern explains.

In the crayfish sector, many small-scale fishers are also locked in exploitative agreements with industry role players along the West Coast. 

“Small-scale fishers who sell their catch are often linked to the wrong market incentives,” Kastern explains. “They are price-takers – they don’t have any negotiating power at the harbour. The fishers who sell to a middleman are undertaking high-risk fishing activity for very little reward.”

Small-scale fishers without a collective voice remain incredibly vulnerable, Adams believes. 

Backing small-scale fishers

According to Raemaekers, disrupting the value chain is key to unlocking a radical paradigm shift in this fishery.

Communities that are involved in the co-management of the crayfish resource can play a key role in rebuilding the stock,” he says. “Fishers who take collective ownership of their fisheries and participate in its management can play a vital role in tackling problems around illegal catching.”

ABALOBI’s next step is to try to include more fishers in the pilot project. 

“We want to enable fishers to realise a fair value for their catch and build tangible market incentives for responsible fishing practices,” Kastern explains. “We will also focus on completing the traceability chain with restaurants and work with other partners. 

“Together, we are crafting a value chain that is socially just and fair on those traditional fishers who are trying to make a living off their small, legal catches. The fishers and restaurants participating in this pilot project are helping to reimagine a shorter, transparent and equitable supply chain that can assist with efforts to rebuild the fishery.”

Shoshola says his relationship with ABALOBI has been “a game-changer” for him and his family. 

“Being a small-scale fisher is like being someone with no identity,” he says. “You cannot borrow money from the bank or sign up for life cover because you cannot prove your income.

“But now, I have a say in what my catch is sold for. I have proof of income and even signed up for life cover. Should I die at sea, my family is protected. I am not a nobody. I am a somebody.” DM/MC

Read more about ABALOBI’s work here.

A radical paradigm shift if needed for small-scale fishers. For this to happen, the supply chain has to be disrupted. Read more here and here.

Jorisna Bonthuys is a freelance science and environmental journalist from Cape Town.

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