What if our famed West Coast Rock lobster is downgraded to SASSI's Red List? Or should the question instead read "When..."?
Will that save lobster stocks from complete decimation? What will the socio-economic consequences be? Of course, strictly speaking that is not SASSI's mandate or direct concern. SASSI's colour coding of fish stocks is determined by the biological and ecological health of the fishery concerned. However, given that our lobster stocks have been sitting at between 3% and 2% of pristine for some time now, that SASSI had not red listed lobster a few years ago, confirms that the organisation is indeed mindful of the socio-economic impacts of red-listing such a crucial small-commercial fishery.
Indeed, if abalone has been on the red list for years now, why has lobster similarly not been classified as red?
The reality is that while placing lobster on the red list may have little to no consequences for the export-driven offshore commercial fishery, the small-scale fishery (which has much higher levels of mortalities) depends substantially more on local consumers, including fish mongers, restaurateurs, hoteliers and some retailers to buy their frozen whole or tailed products.
Listing lobster on the red list may not only hurt the legal small-scale nearshore fishery by reducing the pool of responsible local consumers, but will certainly reduce the market value of locally available lobsters. This is in turn will almost certainly increase the illegal trade in lobsters given that small-scale fishers will seek to make up the loss in income through increasing lobster catches.
The only viable solution to fixing the lobster crisis is to urgently reduce the number of persons who harvest nearshore stocks and re-examine how inshore fishery compliance for high value stocks is undertaken. The number of persons accessing lobster (whether through section 18 rights or via the interim relief process) grew from just more than 800 small-scale fishers back in 2004 (when the lobster TAC was at its highest in South African history) to more than 2500 today, which includes an estimated 1700 interim relief fishers.