Marine Resources: Some conclusions and my legacy (2019)

Eyes dim, memory fades; old age is a-stalking,

As silent as the dawn lighting up the coming day.

Before senility avers its victory,

Oh Father, will you grant your humble servant’s wish

To leave a few worthwhile memories in words.

Words oft named ‘wisdom’ in our declining years,

That may be passed on to future generations

For whatever they are worth.

We live in a confused and confusing world guided by a set of principles that, by their very nature generate conundrums, which are almost unanswerable. The Western world, for instance, lives by the principle of democracy. The overall intention of democracy is rule by the people. Then the basic pretext of people’s rights must apply. We then try to identify those rights, stumble, rise, and stumble again.

It then seems that the God-given right to procreate should apply. But the Good Lord, or whatever Power for good we believe in, caused the evolution of man, and the continued evolution of his brain capacity which is clearly ongoing! He must surely have given us that capacity in order to utilise it. How then can it be our inalienable right be to bring more and more progeny into this world, whilst realising its limited ability to adequately sustain them?

Every individual is different, some clever, some not so clever, some brilliant, some lacking in some way be it physically or mentally. How then can it be the right of the people to govern? Surely, we need the greatest intellect available to guide us. Very few politicians would seem to fit into that envelope. Man, it seems, is generally innately self-centred, selfish, only wanting to consider his rights, rather than the rights of others. Of course, there are exceptions; many thank God. Surely, the selection of our leaders should come from that relatively small group providing their intellect matches their compassion for others.

Do our current Democratic principles really allow for that? Is capitalism, a democratic right? In many ways, under the guidance of good business principles, it cannot be democratic because skill, and the individual’s ability in applying that skill, determines who become the upper management, and those, in satisfying the very requirement of capitalism, virtually have to become dictators, benign or otherwise. Yet ‘dictator’ is one of the dirty words in our English language, alongside apartheid, separatism, etc. Please understand I am not decrying democracy, but merely indicating its shortcomings. I neither know nor can identify any better system at the present, but, as surely as the Almighty Power created this world, we can be sure that we are extremely far from creating a system of governance that is: A) totally effective, B) pragmatically practical, C) fair to all, and D) acceptable by all. Our current SA government must be a prime example of this, but so are many others as well!

Transformation is now for many another developing “dirty” word, which is so unfair as it is part of natural evolution. However here in South Africa, the principle is so badly maligned in the form of greed that it has now reached a crisis point in underlining this country’s fast track to devolution. It has of course been a common problem historically in not only countries, but in all types of entities, where a change of leadership or power occurs. If the new leadership or power can number, amongst its constituent’s supporters, sufficiently competent and experienced individuals to satisfy the ideal of transformation, this would be entirely acceptable and, in the light of human nature, fully expected. That our governing power should feel so vulnerable as to wish to replace everyone of a different skin colour with one of their skin colour, leading, as it has, to the enormous reduction in the ability of government and quasi-government structures, is totally beyond me. It has simply become an insult to those they promised greater and less biased delivery of services et al. By all means get rid of those who can clearly be identified as standing in the way of fair change and opportunity for so many of our peoples, but stop replacing fair-minded competent individuals with incompetents.

However, to have willy-nilly replaced so many with those under skilled and under educated is simply stupidity of the highest order. In a natural way future selection would have achieved the government’s stated aims, as more and more of those previously disadvantaged citizens were educated and trained to do the job. Instead we face the chaos of a hugely incompetent bureaucracy whose only ability is to further that chaos and devolution. In a country so desperate to create jobs to improve the daily lives of its constituents, this must rank as the worst possible legacy of our young democracy. Yet we own a constitution held by the largest proportion of the world as an example for the future.

A small aside is to note that a large degree of our coloured community, and nearly all of our Indian community, are shining examples of how they were able to gain at least a large proportion of the economic cake, even whilst under the previous government’s unfair rule. Surely, our Government now must realise that, for real transformation to occur, they need to correct the greatest sin of the previous government and the majority of its constituents. That was the denial of adequate education to all, irrespective of colour, creed, or culture, which should be the number one priority for our land. How far could the monies expended on the unnecessary and mostly useless arms deal have gone towards improving the situation of the obviously poor and under capacity Education Department?

Mine is a voice from the past, who would, however, after a lifetime (70 years) of fishing involvement, still hope to be able to influence Sea Fisheries (no longer, thank goodness, a division of DAFF) to get their house in order once again. This needs to happen in order to afford as many South Africans as possible, directly or indirectly, the potential to benefit from one of our greatest natural assets, our marine environment. I have enjoyed a reasonably successful and productive life on the bosom of the ocean. This has rewarded me and my family, my crews, our other employees, and all their families, a generous and stable living over the years, as a result of her largesse. Therefore, I would like to be able to use what little wisdom and experience I have gained about these wonderful resources, to see the major changes necessary to its management and usage. I have always had a passion about the sea and everything under, in, or on it. The study of those resources, particularly the fish, and the sustainable management thereof, has also always been my hobby.

Our oceans, and their intertidal zone and beaches, belong to all South Africans, who are surely entitled to enjoy unfettered but controlled access thereto as relaxation in this highly stressful world of ours. It is also, in itself. the basis for huge industries and job creation. Similarly, the bounty that it yields, as a source of food, again forms the platform for large industry and their resultant jobs, but needs to be shared fairly between them, and those that live adjacent on its shores.

I have spent more than sixty years of living, experiencing, and trying to understand, my hobby of the science of marine resources. Add to this the sixty-five years of fishing for pleasure, starting with, yes truly, the proverbial cotton and pin, progressing through to the fancy tackle and equipment of today’s generation. However, it is the first generation where a large majority do generally understand and accept the need for conservation and the sustainable utilisation of these resources. What do I consider that I have learnt in this time? Well, not even a tiny fraction of what there is to learn, but maybe just enough to justify the following conclusions.

In the past, my previous experiences, in trying to evaluate and influence the handling of the marine resources, has not always been met with enthusiasm by all of the participants. However, today, with age on my side, my hide is a little thicker and less susceptible to criticism. In the course of this life I have been told that I know nothing and am not a scientist, know everything and should be a scientist, am a know all, am an intellectual, epitomise perseverance; am interfering, interesting, boring, pompous, a leader, never a follower, a failed genius, and a stupid idiot, amongst many other epithets. I plead guilty to all, and does that not simply mean I am just a normal human being?

I think of myself as not bad in compensating for my weaknesses and failings, but unfortunately have not always used those abilities that I have been lucky enough to be endowed with, for enough real benefit of others. Just maybe, with no degree of certainty, some of the following words of mine may partially make amends.

What is conservation? Is it the protection of natural biota at all costs? Maybe!

Actually today, in the face of the continuing human population explosion, human needs must take priority over those of the other natural kingdoms in certain instances. However, determining beyond reasonable doubt which instances requires the Wisdom of Solomon, who, neither in reality nor kind, appears any longer to inhabit this planet of ours. We can perhaps be forgiven if we admit that many times we have misjudged ourselves, when you appreciate how puny we remain in the face of the forces of nature; how inept we are in our managing of all things; and how often futile and negligent we are when faced with the adversity of decision making.

Should you doubt what I am saying, just take a recent article that has appeared in one of our industry magazines, as well as been reported in several newspapers. It was by a scientist who first indicated that she and her co-researchers believe they could estimate the number of great whites sharks inhabiting our coastal waters. She then went on to say that they desperately needed protection as nobody really knew how many were left in the oceans, and that their presence on this planet was very important as they, apparently alone, controlled the seal population, their primary diet, which in turn would result, through less seals, in improving our fish populations.

Firstly, the seal population has exploded worldwide as a result of public attitudes generated primarily by the “greens” of this world, who believe that such cuddly, sad eyed, helpless, creatures should not be exploited by mankind. Yes, there is little doubt that their increased numbers are having an impact on certain fish resources. However, in one of the marine food chains, the seal probably stands just below the great white as a predator of note on many species, particularly the juveniles of such species. In fact, they are effectively the rats of the sea, even if somewhat larger than the land-based species, and we certainly do not endeavour to protect them. To make the whole story even more ridiculous, is the fact that for centuries seals have been a remarkably sustainable source of food, clothing, and oil for the benefit of many humans!

The great white in itself is probably the most widely spread shark species in the oceans of our globe, is known to be able to migrate huge distances, seldom, if at all, targeted for its fins, but certainly does at times congregate around seal colonies as a satisfactory source of food. However, seals are far from being its only or main food source, and, in my opinion in common with many other predators, it is difficult to understand its contribution to biodiversity.

Biodiversity is not only a wonderful scientific catchword, but certainly requires consideration in any resource management plan. However, it is, I fear, taken too much for granted without sufficient effort being made to understand the full effects thereof, particularly in respect of certain species. This then runs the risk of a species been protected in the name of biodiversity without a full analysis of their positive or negative importance in the biodiverse food chain in which it lies. Today, in fact, it must surely be that conservation must be coupled with sustainable management of all natural biota that are required in humankind’s food chain, if we are to be able to feed the masses. This already seems an impossible task, whether by a lack of will or otherwise. Yet there are scientists who glibly suggest that we will be able accommodate comfortably a further population increase of 50%. Then, the conundrum develops when many scientists, aided and abetted by an uneducated public’s opinion, down-cry genetically modified foods, whose modification will normally simply increase their yield.

Well, irrespective of the species, we are lousy conservationists in many instances, and this particularly applies to my main area of interest, namely the harvesting of fish and other marine resources. Here in South Africa for all we try, our conservation efforts are still increasingly clearly dependent on nature’s efforts and not our own. However, apart from deep-sea resources that require a large capital investment to exploit, the Sea Fisheries Departments and the scientists have achieved very little in determining regulations to enhance conservation. In fact, political and social requirements, more often than not in South Africa, overwhelm any logical suggestions with the result that nearly all our inshore resources are hopelessly over-exploited. Luckily, the deep-sea the quota holders themselves adopt and execute pragmatic resource management and evaluation processes for their sustainable protection.

My main interest is line fish and the only form of conservation that I see been practically effective is the ridiculous situation that, when there is too little left to catch, the species get left alone and start recovering. Today, with our considerably increased biological understanding coupled with theoretical management abilities, we should be able to protect, monitor, and achieve compliance toward sustainable maximum utilisation and exploitation of these resources. Even when nature intervenes and delivers us an outstanding year of recruitment, the reasons of which we clearly do not yet understand, our reaction time is still far too slow and we seem incapable of taking real advantage of such circumstances. The biggest problem of all is our inability to develop a meaningful compliance structure, and then to find the people to implement it effectively, but that I will deal with another time.

From my point of view, my frustrations started years ago back in 1968, when I submitted an article to SA Shipping and Fishing Industry News suggesting that the level of exploitation on the SWA pelagic resources was dangerously high. The combined fleets of the factory mother ships, the shore based factories at Walvis Bay, and those at Luderitz, ably assisted by an enormous Russian fleet that included midwater trawlers (midwater trawling was still unknown in South Africa at that time) would, I believed, threaten their sustainability. After all, remember what happened to similar resources in California and Florida where such fisheries had collapsed. The only result of that effort was that the magazine editor was threatened with no further support from Industry, if he published my “tripe.” My employer, to whom I was a contracted skipper in the Suiderkruis fleet, told me I could look for another job if I repeated my efforts in that direction again. The scientists simply said that I clearly did not know what I was talking about. However, worst of all, from my point of view, was the fact that four years later when I was proved right, not a single person acknowledged it, or.ever thought of apologising to me, even though I was one of the top skippers on the West Coast. Unfortunately, this was far from the only occasion that this happened during my fishing life.

The pilchard resource, of the then South West Africa, was a relatively simple resource in its overall scope and habitat for me to cut my teeth on whilst learning to appreciate the need for resource management and sustainable exploitation practice. Incidentally, time also taught us that the Russian fleets’ exploitation of our pelagic resources, which was restricted to outside the twelve-mile limit, was but a fraction of what the local pundits claimed. They, of course, were looking for a scapegoat to free themselves from the blame.

I hope that my readers find the above of interest and thought provoking, and for the rest I hope you have all enjoyed a happy and stress free Christmas with you and yours. I wish you well for 2020 in the hope that the required changes to our political environment and thus Branch Fisheries, will at least become acknowledged and hopefully start to be modified by our government. I can only take heart, as I urge you all to do, in the knowledge gained throughout my life that the pendulum always reaches the point of inevitable return.

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