MAKING SPACE: Fishing boats in Gansbaai harbour. Small-scale fishers have historically been crowded out and marginalised by the process used to allocate fishing rights. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
MAKING SPACE: Fishing boats in Gansbaai harbour. Small-scale fishers have historically been crowded out and marginalised by the process used to allocate fishing rights. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

AGRICULTURE, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana has undertaken to forge ahead with plans to facilitate the entry of more players into the fishing sector despite objections.

The government is concerned that the sector, which has annual sales of more than of R5bn, remains largely untransformed and dominated by a few companies.

Earlier in 2016, President Jacob Zuma signed into law the Marine Living Resources Amendment Act, which recognises small-scale fishermen who were previously marginalised by the process followed in allocating fishing rights.

The South African Deep Sea Trawling Industry Association, which represents established operators, dismissed perceptions the industry was untransformed, and said fragmentation or the allocation of fishing rights to more companies was bad for the sector.

However, Zokwana told Business Day on Tuesday that over the years the fishing sector had been dominated by a few players, some of whom were not reinvesting in the economy.

"How are you going to restructure the fishing industry in order to address historical imbalances and to achieve equity within the fishing industry if you do not broaden access? Only quality transformation will be recognised — that is transformation which results in real benefits to historically disadvantaged persons," Zokwana said.

The pending 2015-16 fishing rights allocation process would ensure a "strong emphasis in decoding relationships between entities to reduce and, where possible, eradicate monopoly by few individuals players."

Zokwana said the assessment panel had completed the assessment of applications for Patagonian toothfish, hake inshore trawl and horse mackerel.

The delegated authority had very recently engaged with the fishing industry, requesting players to provide input and suggestions on how best to allocate rights and ensure that the broader objectives of the act were achieved. This included looking into how the industry could best assist the department in ensuring the nurturing of the small-scale fisheries sector and removing barriers.

"There were entities that were allocated rights with the hope that they will create jobs in economically depressed areas and some of those entities, as soon as they were allocated rights, they relocated their operations to metros and revamped their infrastructures and automated their operations," the minister said.

In 2015 he accused established fishing companies of continuing to use individual fishermen as fronts to secure fishing rights. He had visited fishing villages and learnt that collusion and fronting by commercial firms was still a problem.

Zokwana is pitted against the South African Deep Sea Trawling Industry Association, which has previously said the problem was often that too many fishing allocations were given to too many small fishermen, raising issues of viability. Such fishermen had no alternative but to offer the allocations to big firms to catch on their behalf, argued the association, which represents the interests of 52 trawler owners and operators.

In an opinion piece on Monday, the association’s Felix Ratheb, who is also the CEO of Sea Harvest, said one of the arguments put forward in support of fragmentation in the sector was the "misconception" that the deep-sea trawling industry was untransformed. But a report, compiled on behalf of the industry by Empowerdex and released in July, showed "the ownership of SA’s deep-sea trawling industry is transformed: at least 62.36% of the industry is black owned".

Ratheb wrote that volume had enabled the industry to achieve economies of scale and to compete globally. "Reversing this trend," Ratheba argued, "by introducing ever more small operators would result in the export of more commodity hake products, less beneficiation and therefore less employment and lower returns."

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