Victory for small-scale fishers after high court interdicts Searcher Geodata’s West Coast seismic survey
Small-scale fishers can breathe a sigh of relief after the high court sided with them and granted an urgent interdict to put a halt to the seismic surveying that was being conducted by the Australian company Searcher Geodata along the West Coast.
Small-scale fishers are relieved after an official interdict followed an urgent application to put a halt to seismic surveying by the Australian company Searcher Geodata along the West Coast.
The applicants, 14 small-scale fishers and the civic organisation We are South Africans, filed an urgent application for an interdict against the survey programme.
The applicants cited concerns over a lack of consultation by Searcher Geodata, the effect of the survey on their indigenous and spiritual rights, the irreparable harm to marine life and thus their livelihoods, as well as a lack of environmental authorisation to carry out the survey.
In his ruling, at the Western Cape High Court, Judge Daniel Thulare said: “If Searcher truly wanted to ensure that [small-scale fishers] were included in the consultation process, it would have advertised [notices of the survey] in isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans.”
Searcher Geodata had cited English and Afrikaans notices in local newspapers as sufficient communication, alongside a report on the survey being available on WhatsApp, among other limited means. The judge’s ruling also confirmed that small-scale fishers had been excluded from the consultation process, while commercial fishers were consulted.
The effect of surveys on marine life was of great concern to the fishers, who rely on snoek for nutrition but also have cultural ties to it, more particularly the Khoi and San traditional heritage.
“For these reasons, I make the following order: [Searcher Geodata is] interdicted from continuing the seismic survey of the West and South-West Coast of South Africa in terms of the Reconnaissance Permit granted by [the minister of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE)] on 18 May 2021,” Judge Thulare wrote in the judgment.
The judgment also noted that although the independent environmental assessment practitioners SLR Consulting said they would get an environmental assessment and authorisation at the correct time, they had not to date acquired either.
The ruling has been made pending the DMRE’s internal appeal to grant the reconnaissance permit to Searcher Geodata and the outcome of Part B of the application, in which the applicants seek to have Searcher Geodata’s environmental permits reviewed as they say the authorisation was granted without following proper protocols.
“It’s a huge victory for these communities, who are reliant on the ocean and fishing, not just as a source of income but also as a way of life. Thulare did well in the judgment to emphasise the human aspect of that,” said Priyanka Naidoo, a candidate attorney with the Legal Resources Centre, which represented the fishing communities.
“This victory is significant as it highlights the importance of meaningful consultation which is required under our environmental law regulations. This is especially important given the sudden interest in extractive activities off the West Coast and the potential cumulative effect that these activities can have on the marine and birdlife in the area,” Naidoo said.
Thulare had previously granted an interim interdict, prompting Searcher Geodata to halt its survey programme off the West Coast. The company had then continued the programme in international waters.
The judge noted with concern the manner in which Jeremy Blood, an environmental consultant at SLR Consulting, carried out the environmental assessment on behalf of Searcher Geodata. According to the court papers, SLR, and by extension Searcher Geodata, did not deem the small-scale fishing communities as directly affected by the seismic surveying.
The other respondents of the case filed notices to abide by the decision of the court while they carried out internal appeals. Those respondents included the DMRE, the minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, and Petroleum Agency South Africa.
Searcher Geodata had said in their heads of arguments that they would terminate the seismic surveying programme should the urgent interdict be granted. Daily Maverick asked Searcher Geodata for comment but the company had not responded by the time of publication.
“We are South Africans is ecstatic to hear the resounding news from the Western Cape High Court,” said Gilbert Martins, the founder of the organisation, adding that he hoped the environment and communities would come ahead of profits.
“A simple thing like a judgment will remind us that we still have a voice and that we can still change things together, and we will; for the communities, not for our own benefit.” DM/OBP
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