Foreign trawler activity in SA waters (2021)

Recently, once again rumours and statements are circulating about foreign trawlers operating in our waters. This has occurred many times in the past, when either the Department or other stakeholders needed an excuse, or explanation for an incorrect decision or result.

I first became conscious of the possibility that Taiwanese and Japanese fishing boats were rumoured to be stealing Tuna inside of South Africa’s territorial waters back in the sixties. Several were identified, and then arrested whilst visiting Cape Town harbour for bunkers and supplies. Then came an agreement with the respective countries that this would stop. It probably carried on intermittently to a very limited extent, as once a long-liner is following a shoal of tuna, it becomes irrelevant to ascertain whether you are inside or outside a line hundreds of miles offshore. One positive affect was to motivate a long-lining industry for large pelagics locally. Today, helped further by satellite imaging, this local fleet is quick to report possible transgressions during the day or night.

Then came the period when fishermen and scientists alike recognised that inshore mainly hand-line resources were diminishing at a rate of knots! Unsurprisingly, the Recreationals blamed the Commercials who blamed the Recreationals. This was followed by the rumours that Japanese trawlers were seen working on the Agulhas Banks and other inshore rocky areas, particularly at night? If I remember correctly, this was, for a short time, true, as the Department of Fisheries had come to an arrangement with a Japanese company to test a system known as Bobbin Trawling, which was capable of pulling a trawl net over rough and rocky bottoms. Their subsequent efforts certainly proved the fish were available, but our rocky grounds ate up the nets at an alarming rate, resulting in their advice to our Department that such a fishing method in South African waters was impractical. They also pointed out that, on the rocks in the deeper waters, concentrations of both large Kingklip (family Ling) and hake existed, though it was some years before application was made and granted to long-line for these species.

As an aside, I always thought this was a very short-sighted decision, in that these rocky grounds effectively acted as Marine Protected Areas for the mainly adults of these two species, where, unhindered, they could spawn and maintain continuous reinforcement for the offshore (and to a degree Inshore) smooth bottom trawl grounds. After all, Bottom-trawl rights are based on their viable landings, which are the very backbone of our large fishing industry.

All my life, people with the knowledge of my interests in conservation and sustainable fishing practices, have phoned me to report the lights of working “foreign” trawlers, long-liners, or simply vessels stealing our fishing resources at night, or our own local vessels fishing illegally in closed areas during the day. This was particularly in respect of my time in KwaZulu Natal, and my personal Utopia on this earth, the Breede River Mouth and environs. All fishing activities stop at times due to inclement weather, and then, because the vessels are often days steaming from their home base, they will seek shelter along the coast, rather than steam slowly head-on into the increasing storm. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that vessels are trawling or throwing their nets right in the mouth of the Breede, when they are lying at anchor waiting for the storms to subside.

Then, when they have been reported as fishing at night of the KwaZulu Natal or Transkei coast, I ask where are they during the day, only to be told that they have steamed out beyond our territorial limit again. Few, if any, fishing vessels, capable of operating in our inshore waters, can steam more than twenty kilometres an hour, so it could take more than a day to reach them. Need I say anymore?

The best ever example of people’s imagination, was when an irate shore angler at St Lucia

phoned me to tell me that one of my vessels out of Durban was actually trawling in the breakers, and I must please ensure that it be ordered away, because it was within casting distance from the beach. I was, I suppose somewhat sarcastically, able to tell him that it had been too close to the shore three nights before, and had run aground. His reply was to ask why we had not moved it away since then. I do not remember my reply, which is probably a good thing, as obviously stressed I had just arrived home in Durban, and had not slept for fifty-two hours.

No, foreign vessels stealing our marine resources is an old wife’s tale, and has been for years. Remembering the huge advances in technology over the past decade, you can rest assured that any stealing of our marine wealth is certain today to be an inside job!

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