Opinionista Dave Bryant 20 January 2021

Fishing rights and quota allocation delays are hammering poor coastal communities

The Covid-19 lockdowns have had a significantly negative impact on the lives and livelihoods of South African fishing communities. Women in the fishing industry, in particular, have been hit very hard. These communities are desperate for answers and economic opportunities.

The year 2021 will continue to be challenging for South African fishing and it is essential that the national government and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries takes the requisite steps to provide clarity and address a wave of ongoing concerns from those directly involved.  

The long-outstanding overhaul of the Fishing Rights Allocation Process is central to the challenges relating to fishing in South Africa. The process is intended to give all stakeholders in the fishing sector the opportunity to have their say and allow them to propose changes to relevant policies and fees. This process was supposed to take place in 2020 and was due to include both written submissions and oral consultations.

But in November 2020, the minister of environment, forestry and fisheries announced that the process was to be delayed until December 2021. It was also announced that the overarching legislation, the Marine Living Resources Act (MLRA), would need to be amended and that that process would begin only in 2022.

These delays have sadly led to prolonged uncertainty for the fishing industry.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have had a significantly negative impact on the lives and livelihoods of local fishing communities. Women in the fishing industry, in particular, have been hit very hard, many having spent 2020 balancing the responsibility of home schooling and looking after children while working under particularly tough conditions.

Some have had to resort to making jewellery and doing other side jobs in order to make ends meet. Many have had to face the additional trauma of losing loved ones and breadwinners to the virus. These communities are desperate for answers and economic opportunities. It is vitally important that thorough and ongoing studies of the socioeconomic environment of all coastal fishing communities be undertaken to establish what remedial measures are best suited.

The size of fishing quotas for coastal fishing communities remains a bone of contention, with many fishers believing that the current quotas remain too low. It is worthwhile investigating whether the impact of increasing quotas could allow for greater economic opportunities and potentially create a disincentive for coastal fishers to enter into poaching.

Any decision to increase these quotas would, however, have to be made with in-depth consultation and empirical evidence to ensure that the impact is not deleterious to already precarious coastal fishing stocks. If the increase in quotas could succeed in reducing the prevalence of poaching, then it is certainly something to be considered.

The Western Cape government, the province that accounts for about 85% of fishing activity in the country, estimates that about R1.8-billion is lost to poaching every year in the province alone. If this money could be reinvested back into the local fiscus it could be used to provide additional services to communities and create opportunities and much-needed jobs.

It should also be investigated whether provinces and municipalities could be empowered to assist in the granting of fishing permits for coastal fishers and be allowed to carry out additional enforcement operations relating to poaching. If the devolution of these responsibilities is prioritised and budgetary provision made, it would take this arduous burden off the shoulders of the already stretched national departments.

The DEFF has invested a great deal of time and energy into the cooperatives scheme for small-scale fishers. These cooperatives do provide some opportunities for coastal communities and can help with skills and training, but the individual ambitions of fishers and local entrepreneurs within the sector should not be limited by a compulsion to join the system. More must be done to ensure that good people are not forced into poaching and are rather provided with other viable economic opportunities. 

The government must do all it can, where possible, to prioritise those within the fishing industry when it comes to the awarding of large contracts. Over the past few years, some of the most lucrative deals have even been allocated to individuals who live nowhere near fishing communities and who have no prior experience in the fishing industry. It cannot be right that these significant economic opportunities are being handed over to individuals who are completely disconnected from fishing while local fishers and captains of industry are left out of the loop. There is a growing perception among many fishers that outside interests are being prioritised over those of locals.

Central to all of this remains the protection of our fragile marine ecosystems from overfishing. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea compels coastal fishing authorities to ensure that all species of coastal fish are protected from over-exploitation, yet it appears that the balance between protecting coastal resources and increasing allocations remains elusive. The sad reality is that many species of marine life have become critically endangered and rampant poaching in many coastal communities continues unabated.

This will be a difficult year for South Africa as we, along with the rest of the world, slowly start to pick up the pieces of our shattered economies and come to terms with our readjusted social order. This may be the perfect opportunity to reevaluate our relationship with the marine environment and those who depend on it most for survival. DM

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