Monday, September 18, 2017

The West Coast Rock Lobster: Fishery and Communities in Crisis

The ongoing community carnage in Hout Bay, which was apparently sparked by recommendations by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries' (DAFF) scientific working group on lobster to cut the 2017/2018 season TAC by 69%, exposes our coastal communities' grave reliance on lobster for the incomes. Reliance on a single resource for ones entire or substantial portion of incomes even as small scale commercial fishers, has long been considered problematic. 

That is why back in 2003/2004, the erstwhile Marine and Coastal Management identified the urgent need to expand the number of commercial and small-scale fisheries by identifying new fisheries. South Africa today could have had 28 or 32 commercial and small-scale-commercial fisheries. Unfortunately, today we continue with 22 fisheries; thousands more fishers added to rights registers; and more than 200,000 tons in reduced landings and catches since 2005.  

When commercial and small-scale lobster fishing rights were allocated back in 2004/2005, 80% of the TAC was allocated to the commercial trap fishery and the balance was allocated to the small-scale hoop-net fishery. Today, that split is 50%/50% but we have added an extra 2000 "small-scale" community-based fishers to this number and the TAC has plummeted from record highs in 2004 to record lows today. West coast rock lobster today is only at 2% of pristine levels. There is no doubting that the additional effort of the "small-scale community" fishery coupled with increased commercial poaching have contributed to the collapse of our famed lobster stocks. 

If West and Southern coast fishing communities think they can continue to demand near unfettered access to lobster, there will be nothing to left to harvest in 5 years (if that). Fishermen complain year-in and year-out how it is taking them longer to fish the same or less fish. And with each passing year, fishing costs increase while incomes decrease in real terms. This year saw South African lobster prices collapse to US$24 / kg. Relying on a weak ZAR currency cannot be a sustainable alternative either. 

And demanding more quota from the commercial trap fishery will only continue the destruction of the resource and commercial value of fishery - not to mention further job losses. There is no denying that the commercial trap fishery sustains more jobs per kg of fish allocated than the nearshore fishery. It is also generates more value on a per kilogram basis. To continually redistribute a shrinking resource pool only increases poverty - it does not generate wealth or prosperity. Just look at the state of our coastal communities over the past 9 years since the introduction of the fateful "interim relief" quotas. This Blog has documented case-study after case-study of failed co-operative ventures and community conflicts as "community representatives" have stolen millions in income meant for lobster fishers. 

This may also explain in part the targeted destruction of certain properties belonging to "lobster middlemen" in Hout Bay. 

The only immediate solution to this resource crisis is for fishers, the Department's scientists and managers and "community representatives" to accept that relying on lobster quotas for a substantial portion of incomes for at least the next generation will be dangerous. Lobster quotas will have to be cut - perhaps not by 69% - but cuts are necessary, coupled with a massive compliance initiative to curtail illegal fishing are necessary to ensure some level of recovery. 

A substantial burden is placed on the DAFF to explain what financially and biologically sustainable quota harvesting alternatives there are on an area-by-area basis. And there are very viable options. 

From the Northern Cape down south and along the West Coast, small scale fishers should have access to horse mackerel and pilchards caught by "bo-lyne", line fish, lobster and seaweed, which is increasing in value and demand from a number of growth markets and industries. 

In addition, the continued conservative approach to developing new fisheries and expanding current fisheries needs to be abandoned. Fishery managers need to think beyond rejecting new fishery applications and pandering to protect the current and vested interests of commercial right holders who understandably recognise any expansion or change as a threat to their strangle hold over the fisheries. Just consider the absolute panic and negative media storm that was generated by the South African Deep Sea Trawl Industry Association the DAFF considered expanding the current horse mackerel fishery which is controlled by two right holders. 

The only solution to the crisis afflicting fishers in Hout Bay and other areas is for the DAFF to start urgently leading the expansion and growth of our current commercial and small-scale fisheries. This means investing in the recovery of over-exploited fisheries and identifying possible species for economic growth. 

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