Are our famous West Coast rock lobster stocks on the verge of complete collapse? The sense by fishermen who attended a briefing by the Fisheries Department on 16 September 2016 seems to confirm an appreciable sense of panic by researchers and fisheries managers.
The headline numbers for the fishery appear desperate. The TAC will be cut by no less than 30% this coming season to a global TAC of 1270 tons! The proposal is to further cut the TAC in 2017/2018 to 790 tons - that is a further 37% cut, equating to a 70% cut in catch allowances and income in 24 months! The economic hardship that this will cause in West and Southern Cape Coasts villages and towns will be massive.
The TAC for areas 3&4 (Doring Bay, Lamberts Bay and Elands Bay) has been reduced by 42%. The TAC for areas 5%6 (St Helena Bay, Paternoster and Saldanha) has been reduced a whopping 65%. To make financial matters even worse for quota holders is that the allotted fishing months has been severely curtailed and fishing in most areas will be possible only when the usual lobster prices are at their seasonal lowest (between US$25/KG to US$32/KG).
But these measures are certainly unavoidable - the alternative options are to either maintain catch limits or reduce it slightly with a complete biological failure of the stock in 3 to 5 years' time.
However recovery of the fishery is far from certain. The biggest threats to the fishery are over capacity (too many quota holders exploiting smaller and smaller quotas) and poaching by both right holders and non-right holders.
I have stated this repeatedly from day one when the Equality Court ordered the department in 2005 to accommodate an initial 800 more quota holders in the fishery. This number has escalated to more than 1900 today over and above the 840 nearshore right holders and 240 commercial operators who were legitimately granted long term fishing rights in 2004/2005. If ever there is a lesson for why courts and judges must not involve themselves in matters they are not qualified to understand and appreciate, the tragedy of our WCRL fishery is that lesson and case study.
Back in 2004 before long term fishing rights were granted, the department's lobster scientists, compliance officers and fishery managers carefully and scientifically planned and determined the maximum sustainable number of quota holders that could be accommodated and managed in both the nearshore, small-scale and commercial fisheries. At that time South Africa's lobster stocks were healthy having just recovered from decades of pillaging by companies such as Hout Bay Fishing Industries. Of course, not everyone who applied for a lobster fishing right - let alone every fisherman - could be accommodated and granted a fishing right. A fishing right is not a basic human right to which South Africans are entitled under our Constitution. It certainly is not an alternative to a social grant for the unemployed. But of course, the Equality Court (and the NGO's that egged them on) knew better and insisted that government must accommodate all fishermen who were denied fishing rights!
And now thanks to that ill-conceived decision, lobster stocks are at less than 2% of historical pristine levels and poverty will surely be the defining characteristic of lobster fishermen from Port Nolloth to Arniston as their quotas are slashed by 70% over the next 2 seasons.
But as quotas have been reduced (And will be reduced further over the next 2 seasons), poaching has skyrocketed. According to the department, illegal fishing has doubled over the past 3 years. Observing lobster vessels in Hout Bay harbour tells you that poaching is in fact the norm today. The landing of undersized and illegal catches are par for the course.
Everyone and his dog knows about illegal lobster in bags sold openly in Paternoster. But large "legitimate" operators in the lobster fishery are themselves complicit in the illegal trade. So while the "interim relief" lobster fishers of Paternoster have been over-catching by an average of 90 tons a season (yes, 90 tons when their TAC is only 11 tons!) over the past 2 seasons, the question that we should be asking is, who is buying, processing and exporting these illegal harvests?
The consequences for lobster fishermen are clear. In 2008, we were catching an average of 58 lobsters per trap in deep water Area 8. This season, average catches per trap have dropped to an uneconomical 20 lobsters. The lobster fishery has effectively volunteered to stop fishing well-before the 30 September regulated closure of the season. Of greater concern is that baby lobsters have repeatedly being brought up in the traps causing them stress and harm to their bodies, which means these young will be spending more time and energy recovering from these stresses than growing, which will mean even slower lobster biomass recovery rates - even if poaching was to be significantly reduced.
As the country's most infamous poacher and wildlife criminal, Mr Bengis of Hout Bay Fishing Industries admitted to Marine and Coastal Management officials many years ago before he was incarcerated in a US Federal Prison, "if you thought I was a big poacher, think again..."
If we are going to seriously contemplate a lobster recovery DAFF will have to do three critical things immediately:
1. Deal with illegal fishing by quota holders and non-quota holders. ALL Fishery Control Officers need to be independently monitored and subjected to lifestyle audits. The current system of deploying and managing fishery monitors who record catches needs complete overhauling. Monitors cannot be related to fishers and certainly cannot live in the same streets and towns as fishers and poachers.
2. Reduce the number of people catching lobsters, whether in the interim relief, small-scale or commercial fishery sectors - but these numbers are just too large to sustainably support the available fish.
3. The entire compliance management strategy needs overhauling - and not just for lobster monitoring and compliance.
Right holders who are implicated in illegality serious permit violations must be immediately subjected to criminal processes and administrative penalties must include the termination of their lobster fishing rights and these persons should be disqualified from the upcoming 2016 lobster fishing rights allocation process.
PS: See our tweets on the subject by following us on the Feike Handle @feikemanagement