Neels Blom Writer at large
Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO
Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO

SA’s trout industry is challenging environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa in court over her plan to declare trout an alien and invasive species — an action that may scupper a billion-rand industry — despite an undertaking not to, it claims her department has made.

The minister is proposing to amend the Alien and Invasive Species Lists under the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act to include species of trout.

The Federation of Southern African Flyfishers (Fosaf) says if the minister succeeds, trout farming and the stocking of SA’s waters with trout will become a criminal offence, unless those involved have a valid permit.

Guy Preston, the deputy director-general, said on Thursday the department of environmental affairs would oppose the application. He dismissed the notion that the listing would destroy the trout value chain as "alarmist". The best protection for trout would be by listing it. "The point is to prevent the further invasion of trout into areas where they are not yet occurring," said Preston.

Fosaf, along with a consortium of interested and affected parties, said on Thursday it had served papers to interdict the minister last Friday "as a last resort after years of attempts to negotiate a lawful and sustainable basis for regulating SA’s trout fishery were rejected by the department".

Its bid is based on procedure followed when the minister issued notices to amend the list. It said the public has a constitutional right to informed participation in law-making by commenting on draft laws, and this right would be violated if the list is amended.

Investment in the industry amounts to billions of rand, participants say, though the value chain of the combination of recreational trout fishing (flyfishing) and trout production for the table is notoriously difficult to assess. Cobus Venter, a senior consulting economist at Stellenbosch University’s Bureau for Economic Research, estimates that recreational fishing for trout amounts to R1.144bn a year in 2013 nominal value.

The economic multipliers for sport and recreation have the R1.144bn add R1.876bn to GDP and employment of more than 13,000 people, says Venter. It is likely that the basis for the calculation "very significantly understates" the effect on tourism.

The contribution of trout produced for the table is considerable. The Aquaculture Lab, part of Operation Phakisa (Oceans Economy) in the presidency, quotes the department of agriculture, forestry & fisheries 2012 aquaculture year book as saying about 1,428 tons of trout a year are produced for the table.

This compares with abalone, the next largest aquaculture harvest, of 1,111 tons. The proposed alteration of the regulatory framework for trout is not prudent regulation and has the potential to cause great economic damage, said Venter.

Fosaf said it had obtained a compromise undertaking in 2014 to have trout declared as alien, but not invasive and that the department had reneged on it. But Preston said the undertaking was conditional and that the option is no longer available.

Fosaf said permits to farm invasive species or to introduce them into the wild are not easily obtained. "The minister is only authorised to issue these permits in exceptional circumstances." he said.

Wolf Avni, who operates a trout hatchery in KwaZulu-Natal, said the department is waging a war on trout. "[The industry] experiences this every day, right across the value chain. Long-standing clients hold off on buying fish for stocking lest it put them in conflict with legislation. The [department’s action] affects everything from land prices to resort occupancy.

"At its heart is an attempt to destroy the existing economic engine with the intention of reinventing it, with the government in firm control of every aspect of commercial production of anything," said Avni.