SA’s marine fisheries are an important part of the national economy, providing jobs for about 27,000 people with another 100,000 who are indirectly employed in different ways.

Many of these people have worked in the industry all their lives and have no alternatives if the fisheries fail. Careful and effective management of all aspects of our fisheries is therefore required to ensure they don’t fail.

In a recent study Jessica Eggers, Warwick Sauer and I, all from Rhodes University, investigated how well the fisheries management branch of the department of environment, forestry and fisheries is fulfilling this responsibility.

We chose two fisheries for the study — the valuable and easy-to-access West Coast rock lobster, and anchovy and sardine, which require costly and sophisticated vessels and gear to catch. The study involved examining relevant reports and publications as well as consulting a range of people directly involved in the two fisheries.

The results showed some bright spots, but more areas of concern. Particularly worrying is that management effectiveness in both fisheries has been declining in recent years, increasing the risks in both. Overall, the state of management of these two fisheries and, by extension, of SA’s marine fisheries as a whole, can be likened to a weary climber clinging to a cliff.

The fishery for anchovy and sardine is largely offshore, with few landing sites and a small number of vessels and companies involved. This makes them straightforward to manage and control.

As a result, on the bright side, while the sardine stock is low at present due mainly to environmental factors, management of the anchovy and sardine fishery is generally good. With some provisos, the stocks and fishery are adequately monitored; decisions on how much fish can be caught, and where, are based on good science; the rules and regulations are followed by the fishing companies with backup enforcement when necessary; the fishing companies, conservation NGOs and other stakeholders are consulted in management; and goals and progress are regularly reviewed.  

Nevertheless, there are some alarm bells ringing in this fishery, linked to declining capacity in the department. Of greatest concern is that it is not placing independent observers on fishing vessels to monitor what is happening at sea and, as of mid-2018, the department had not been able to monitor vessels offloading their catches outside normal office hours. To their credit, many fishing companies have taken steps to fulfil these functions themselves, but without questioning their good faith, this informal approach is obviously open to abuse.

The fishery for West Coast rock lobster is a more difficult one to manage and gives a different picture. This is a resource and industry in deep crisis. There is an offshore component to the fishery, which involves costly vessels and is relatively easy to monitor, as with that for anchovy and sardine.

However, West Coast rock lobster also occurs in shallow water close to the shore and can be caught from small boats using simple lift nets or by diving. Diving is illegal for the commercial fisheries but is allowed for recreational fishers. This easy accessibility, coupled with a much higher number of fishers, makes it difficult to monitor. In addition, the high value of rock lobster means it is a tempting and easy target for illegal fishing. As a result, the amount of lobster caught by poachers in recent years has probably been similar to the legal catch.

Most damage to the lobster stock was done in the 1960s and 1970s when overfishing reduced its abundance to about 10% of its original size. Careful management led to a slight recovery in the 1990s, but since the early 2000s the population has continued to decline and is now at about 2% of its original size, a perilous position to be in.

Illegal fishing has been a driver of this decline and the inability of the department, and law enforcement as a whole, to control poaching is the most important weakness in management of this fishery. It is linked to insufficient capacity for effective enforcement, which also pervades other management functions.

Our study found that management effectiveness for West Coast rock lobster is below the required standards across all management functions, including monitoring and analysis, the existence of clear objectives and management plans, implementation of the rules and regulations, engagement with stakeholders, and others. There can be no hope of a recovery and little hope of even stabilisation in this fishery under present conditions.

The picture that emerged from our assessment is alarming. Unless urgent action is taken by the department, backed by central government, our inshore fisheries could in effect collapse, and the offshore fisheries move onto a slippery slope towards the same end. The livelihoods of the thousands of people who depend on fisheries would follow the same trajectories.

Capacity for effective management by the department has to be improved, ensuring the current strengths are maintained while seriously strengthening the weaker areas. Additional funds to achieve this will be hard to come by in the current economic crisis, but the future of many coastal communities and fishers will be bleak without them.

More effective use also needs to be made of existing human and financial capacity, which will entail reprioritising in some instances, as well as further training and skills development of staff where required.

Capacity for management could also be strengthened by greater engagement of the fishers, fishing industry and other stakeholders in co-management, a practice that is pursued in well-managed fisheries worldwide.

For fishers and the industry to buy into such arrangements they need to be confident that they have a long-term stake in the fishery and will benefit from their contributions and efforts. This means the department must complete the transformation process, where not already completed, to remove the uncertainty about their futures that fishing rights holders feel at present.

The department also needs to complete the successful implementation of the 2014 small-scale fisheries policy, designed to provide access to SA’s fishery resources to traditional small scale fishing communities, which were previously neglected and marginalised.

Progress in implementing the policy has been slow, and the policy itself has led to unrealistic expectations, aided by the fact that the department does not appear to have undertaken the economic research and business planning required for successful outcomes. These factors have led to high levels of frustration among small-scale fishers, many of whom are struggling under desperate conditions.

Ensuring that our marine resources are used in a sustainable way for current and future generations, and that the country derives optimal benefits from them, is a daunting task. Some of the failings can and should be laid at the door of the department (and its predecessor, the department of agriculture, agriculture & fisheries). But the blame for others, such as the failure to stop the unsustainable levels of illegal fishing and declining budgets, must be shared with other government departments.

An urgent and collaborative effort is required, but it is incumbent upon the department to take a strong lead.

• Cochrane is professor of ichthyology and fisheries science at Rhodes University

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