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Think global, act local — effective marine conservation must cede ownership of resources to communities

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Michael Brown is an MSc candidate at the University of the Western Cape specialising in marine biology.

So often we celebrate photographs of poachers being arrested. Some chuckle safely in their warm homes at night over stories of poachers who lost their lives in the frigid Atlantic at night. These images should break our hearts. Nobody wants that life. The ‘poachers’ are generally the ones who held sustainable fishing lives for decades.

“Some of these islanders dutifully recited for us their ancient law: ‘Take no more from the sea in one day than there are people in your village. If you observe this rule, the bonito will run well again tomorrow’.” — Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus: Exploring and Conserving Our Natural World.

A message pings through on my phone.

A photo of abalone poachers crammed, still soaking wet, into the back of a police van.

Notably, all 15 of them are wearing matching dive gear, suggesting it’s been supplied by somebody with much more money than them.

Understandably the photos are accompanied by obligatory celebrations by people online. But I struggle to join in. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate for poaching at all.

For me, these aren’t the faces of career criminals. Nobody seems proud of defying the law. Nobody even wants to look at the camera. These are men from impoverished communities who have struggled to put bread on the table and now find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Forced there by a system that values equity over equality.

We hear the mantras so often we become numb to them: “use less plastic”, “highest level of punishment for the poacher”, “only buy sustainable fish”. These are all really valid points. But we run the risk of pacifying our discomfort through the “every little bit counts” mindset. You see, every bit does count, but if you spend your life worrying about plastic bags yet aren’t concerned about the lack of service delivery in the lowest income areas, you’ve missed the mark. I guarantee, the lack of refuse removal in low-income areas poses a greater risk to health and the environment than your shopping packet.

So often we celebrate photographs of poachers being arrested. Some chuckle safely in their warm homes at night over stories of poachers who have lost their lives in the frigid Atlantic. These images should break our hearts. Nobody wants that life.

We seem to forget that the ones so often facing the wrath of prosecution are those who were forced into these choices out of necessity. These people are generally the ones who held sustainable fishing lives for decades. They were stripped of fishing rights, ocean access and forced into poverty by a government they didn’t vote for. These are the people now who struggle for permits, who battle to break even on legal fishing.

Yet we bay for their prosecution.

The fact of the matter is that most significant poaching in South Africa is at a commercial level, run by syndicates. The people being caught are barely breaking even on it. They are being held hostage by a system that does not give a hand up; it has punished those who play by the rules, for decades.

We have missed the mark.

The idea of community-based conservation is not a new one, and although it is not always successful, the successes and failures of the models are much less the focus of this article.

Rather I’m speaking more to the often too prevalent tendency for quick-fix, “every little bit counts” solutions while avoiding the larger issues.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The solution is simple.

Ownership.

We need to give those who directly rely on a resource or an area a sense of ownership. It is this sense of ownership that was stripped away when limitations were set on people by the apartheid government. It is this ownership that is impaired when legal fishing permits are not going to those who need them. It is undoubtedly a dehumanising loss of your sense of ownership when you have to poach your own precious resources to sell to foreign syndicates.

Ownership means love, respect and pride.

If we can reintroduce these concepts, and more importantly make them economically sustainable, we go a long way towards an effective form of conservation. The most effective way I see of doing this is threefold:

  • We need to make sure that service delivery and government support are given to those who do not have them, both for environmental conservation and, more importantly, for the dignity of people. This extends to the fair allocation of fishing rights;
  • We need to reignite and promote a sense of love and wonder for the land or ocean that people rely on. We care for what we love. By taking these rights away, we risk generations of people who do not know anything about areas they would have relied upon and cared for in the past; and
  • We need to involve these stakeholders, the ones who are so often forgotten, in policymaking and decisions.

In Liberia, for example, there has been a push to involve small-scale fishers in the enforcement and decision-making processes around fishing zones and conservation areas. According to fisheries experts in the region, this has been a huge success, with fish stocks improving and the fishing community promoting sustainable use of their own resources and holding one another accountable.

Closer to home there are projects and people who I believe have got it right.

Shamier Magmoet is a co-founder of the #SeaTheBiggerPicture initiative. He’s an advocate for the ocean and his community and has produced a short film, Rise from the Cape Flats. When I first met Shamier he was instrumental in both of #SeaTheBiggerPicture’s main programmes — the initiative runs beach clean-ups and a youth programme called Defenders of the Blue. These are programmes which give people a love for the ocean and a sense of pride in and respect for it.

Shamier may not be actively involved in the initiative any more, but he is constantly doing more for both ocean conservation and his community than anyone I know. His social media is often flooded with images and videos of him inspiring people in his community to have pride in and love for their home.

On the beaches of Hout Bay, a community where some of Cape Town’s most wealthy and most impoverished communities compete for real estate, lies another project which seems to just get it right.

Sentinel Ocean Alliance, founded by big wave surfer Frank Solomon, is an initiative aimed at “creat[ing] opportunities for the underserved coastal communities and at-risk youth of Hout Bay”. They do this through skills development, citizenship, mentorship and education.

Sounds like the right blend to me…

Those who have followed Sentinel Ocean Alliance’s progress over the past few years will attest that this formula is producing astounding results.

So yes, I think we conservationists often miss the mark.

We often feel like we are bumping our heads and making little to no discernible progress.

It’s funny though, it seems to work better when we involve everyone rather than shouting our commandments for sustainable living at people.

Almost like we live in a community or something… DM

Michael Brown is an MSc candidate at the University of the Western Cape specialising in marine biology.

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  • Well, Michael, all I can say is we agree with you. We have lived on the Cape South Coast for some years now, and have been exposed to the abalone and lobster poaching problem in some direct ways. We also have seen foreign presumably fishing ships on the horizon.

    I have one suggestion for you to consider – and that is the massively destructive implementation of this current government’s fishing quota system.

    You, as many young writers who were quite possibly not even born under apartheid, like to blame the parlous state of our fishing industry on the “apartheid years”. Yes, many evils were committed in the name of apartheid, and communities were denied ownership of fishing rights then. But large quotas meant large deep sea boats that were able to range far and wide and employ hundreds of local fishermen.

    What have we got today? We have cadre ownership of fishing rights and we have break-bulk fishing rights. This means that boats are generally smaller, and tend to stay more in-shore, leaving foreign raiders free range on our off-shore resources. Their raids are frequent and voluminous, given we have no credible coast guard capability. Local communities who should have these rights still find themselves without rights, AND without employment in the industry. A heady cocktail for illegal and destructive fishing, or drug dealing as the other poverty fall-back. This is arguably worse than under apartheid.

    Find a way to make the ANC change this and we’ll back you all the way!