First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The stakes for those with a vested interest are as high as some of the mountain streams where South African trout thrive. In the 130 years since the original introduction, an industry has grown that contributed around R1.8-billion annually to South Africa’s GDP and sustained the employment of around 13,000 people in 2014, according to an analysis that year by Cobus Venter, an economic consultant.
The industry includes hatcheries and distribution networks, retail and restaurant food sales, fly fishing venues with accommodation and dams or river access, retail shops catering to fly fishers and the bewildering assortment of gear they sport, a small local manufacturing sector that produces flies and other equipment, professional guides, and so on. The sector is also capital intensive with significant investment sunk into it. The economy of entire towns such as Dullstroom depend on trout.
Full disclosure: this correspondent is a mediocre but passionate fly fisher who pursues trout.
“Trout wars”, as the University of the Western Cape professor Duncan Brown has dubbed them in his lyrical 2013 book “Are Trout South African?”, have been raging off and on here since the 1980s. The debate, scaled down to its basics, roughly flows along the following lines:
– As a species that does not naturally occur in South African waters, trout must fall. Trout compete with or prey on indigenous species, despoiling the “natural ecosystem” with wider ecological consequences. One tributary of this reasoning holds that they are part of the colonial project.
– Trout may be “foreigners” but cause minimal ecological damage, have been here for over a century, and serve as an “indicator species” for wider ecological health as they require pristine waters. Trout generally do not breed in dams and support an ecotourism sector of the economy dominated by small business, which the government is keen to promote. Trout are also hardly the only transplanted species here if one includes the likes of maize and cattle and most commercial agricultural commodities.
There certainly are cases of invasive species causing significant ecological harm, notably on islands. But in many cases the damage is negligible. In his book “Where Do Camels Belong?”, Ken Thompson makes the point that few invasive species actually succeed or cause trouble, while Elizabeth Kolbert has noted in her recent book “Under A White Sky” that attempts at controlling those that do can have inadvertent consequences.
In the case of South African trout, any ecological disturbances caused appear to be fairly minimal. This is not to say they have zero impact. For example, trout are seen as a threat to the rare redfin minnow in the Krom River in the Western Cape.
The latest skirmishes in the “trout wars” erupted in 2007 when the government floated rules to eradicate or control invasive species. That triggered seven years of negotiations between the government and industry, and then from 2014 to 2017 there was an intense mapping project aimed at a compromise: trout could be left alone where they now occur, but would be listed as invasive in areas where they could survive but have not yet been introduced.
That seemed fair enough, but there are concerns about the extent of “informed consultation” with the government, leading the Federation of South African Flyfishers (Fosaf) to start litigation.
“Our litigation which started in 2018 and which we are hoping will be heard soon revolves around the lack of information to inform meaningful objections or recommendations,” Fosaf’s National Chairman Ilan Lax told me.
“Then out of the blue in 2020 while litigation is pending the minister publishes the final lists and regulations and they included rainbow and brown trout but the implementation was suspended for 30 days. We then brought an urgent application to court.”
Deff Minister Barbara Creecy had actually flagged this to Fosaf’s lawyers but for unknown reasons they did not receive the correspondence.
“So we wrote to the minister to say please halt implementation as the March deadline loomed. The minister then promulgated that notice implementing the framework but leaving trout off the list,” Lax said.
So trout are off the list – for now, with talks ongoing and a task team casting around for solutions.
“Both the brown and rainbow trout have been excluded from the Alien Invasive Species’ list, while a task team is working on a negotiated way forward,” Deff said in an emailed response to queries.
If trout are included, every step in the trout value chain will require a permit. That would kill the industry, as the government clearly lacks the capacity to administer an efficient permitting system.
The anti-trout lobby might argue that trout fishing is an elite pastime, and why should an invasive species be tolerated for the enjoyment of a few?
By the same reasoning, golf courses should also be banned, the invasive and water-intensive greens removed to make way for natural veld.
On the topic of elites, a question arises: in a developing economy with many pressing challenges such as the pandemic, rampant unemployment and crime, load shedding, and glaring disparities in wealth and income, why on earth is the presence of trout here even an issue? The species does minimal ecological harm while giving rise to an industry that creates jobs and supports small business.
And on the environmental front, there are far bigger fish to fry, such as the pollution befouling river systems such as the Vaal and Eskom’s poisonous addiction to coal.
This fishy fuss brings to mind #Firstworldproblem. Affluence allows for pointless or mundane squabbles. Except South Africa’s challenges are not of the Scandinavian variety. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.