Opinionista Jessica Greenstone 10 December 2014

Red steenbras and recreational fishing: Missing the big picture

There are serious implications to the recent lifting of a moratorium on the recreational fishing of red steenbras after a controversial High Court ruling in Gauteng.

In a recent decision, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria ruled in favour of a group of recreational fishers (the Border Deep Sea Angling Association) and against the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries that had placed a moratorium on catching red steenbras (Petrus rupestris) in 2012.

Although the scientific data suggests that the existing stock of red steenbras is less than 5% of its historical population, the court concluded that the department had not substantially justified the moratorium.

Red steenbras is typical of a number of South Africa’s endemic linefish species that are severely overexploited. Linefish species are a mixed bag of marine fish that are commonly caught by rod and reel. These species range from near-shore species easily caught by shore anglers (like dusky kob) to fish nomads like snoek and yellowtail that roam the coastal oceans freely.

The groups of fishers that target these linefish are equally diverse. Of the three recognised sectors of fishers that target linefish stocks, the recreational sector is the least understood and the most rapidly growing.

Recreational fishers are those who fish for sport. As such, they are not constrained by the economics that may prevent overfishing in the commercial linefish sector where the fishers fish for their livelihoods. Recreational fishers are likely to go fishing even if they are unable to catch many fish due to low population sizes because they are there for the love of it, not the money.

The impacts on linefish stocks by this growing recreational sector are poorly quantified. They are, however, universally recognised by scientists as substantial due to the substantial fleet size and its financial resources.

While there are no well-defined figures on the size of the boat-based recreational fleet in South Africa, it is at least larger than the membership of the South African Deep Sea Angling Association, which represents the interests of approximately 9,000 deep sea anglers and approximately 1,200 vessels (notably, the commercial linefish sector is limited to 450 vessels presently).

The court’s decision highlights the gap in present management efforts to understand the impacts of the recreational sector on critical linefish stocks like red steenbras and the gaps in the department’s communication with this important group of stakeholders.

The department does not presently mandate catch returns for recreational fishers and there are few limits on their catches. The department can and should do better to fulfil this mandate.

But the court’s heavy-handed decision to lift the moratorium on the recreational sector missed the big picture. The decision also set a very troubling legal precedent in the process.

There is no dispute under any interpretation of existing scientific data that red steenbras is in serious ecological trouble. As of 2002, it was found to be at less than 5% of its historical population. The department tried other measures before instituting the disputed 2012 moratorium.

In 2000, it declared a “state of emergency” and reduced the commercial linefishing effort by approximately 70%.  Since 2005, there has been a catch limit of one red steenbras per fisher per day for both the recreational and commercial fishing sectors. Nevertheless, catches of red steenbras have continued to decline across most of its range and the species has all but disappeared in some areas.

In 2010, departmental scientists recommended a total ban on fishing of the species.

Since the severe cuts made to the commercial effort in 2000 and the further limitations imposed in 2005 did not improve the situation, it stands to reason that more aggressive action was necessary.

The court ruled against the department and the recommendation of its fishery scientists on the basis of a hunch that a small group of recreational fishers did not meaningfully impact the red steenbras population.

This decision ignored the basic principles of fisheries science in the process and the collective work of experts who have spent decades understanding the dynamics of South Africa’s fisheries. It also ignored the precautionary principle of fisheries management that is enshrined in South African law, which encourages protective action before there is complete scientific proof of harm. This principle is necessary to protect marine species as there is often incomplete information about the resource until it is too late.

The court also fundamentally overlooked that to a red steenbras and a fisheries scientist, both a commercial fisher and a recreational fisher result in dead fish and the actions of both need restriction.

This is particularly the case for red steenbras, which is a popular recreational “trophy” fish. A good fisher knows where to find red steenbras whether there be a million of them in the sea or just a handful left.

The greatest concern is the worrying precedent that this case may set if not overturned. The business of managing fisheries is a messy one. In order to recover and maintain vulnerable stocks, it is necessary for the department to exclude some users from the resource.

Now, such disgruntled fishers may be emboldened to try their luck in court.

What does this mean for the multitude of imperilled linefish stocks that the department has sought to protect through Marine Protected Areas, moratoriums and other unpopular, but necessary, management tools?

This decision should be challenged and the department should immediately get on with the business of balancing the interests of all South Africans and making the hard but necessary choices to protect South Africa’s marine heritage.

The department, in turn, should heed the lesson from this case urgently to take steps to monitor the impacts of recreational fishing and to open up a dialogue with these fishers to work collaboratively to manage the impacts and interests of this important fishing sector. DM

* Jessica Greenstone is a WWF-SA Marine Fellow at the UCT Marine Research Institute.


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