SASSI and South Africa’s inshore fisheries resources

Some 70 years ago at the age of twelve, the writer, having already learnt its potential for great excitement, fun, and success satisfaction, first realised that fishing also had an even greater potential as a source of hard-to-come-by Pocket money! And the die was cast! In fact, after I left school, it was six years before my monthly salary for the first time exceeded my average fishing income from line fishing in False Bay. There were fish in those days, once you learnt the necessary about the weather, water temperature, and other skills, to the extent that now I sometimes wonder if the passage of time and my advancing age do not exaggerate those memories. But, of course, they do not! Many days we caught very little, but that was the result of youthful impatience and optimism, despite knowing that the conditions were not right! Many other days we loaded up until we could carry no more, and such catches were often greater than many of my younger friends today would be delighted to land in total all summer.

In my early twenties, I decided that, to be a ‘compleat’ fisherman, I needed to understand the science of fish and the behaviour of the different species, and, under the influence of one of my closest friends, a University lecturer in Natural Sciences, began their study accordingly. As a result, I can claim to have been one of the first to warn of the demise of the then South West African Pilchard (Sardine) resource, and definitely the first to blame human disturbance in part for the inevitable event. This hobby then developed into a moderate understanding of Fisheries Resource Management as well.

The need for conservation of Marine Resources was an unknown concept in those early days, and fears of over-fishing in South African waters were only first considered by the then Director of Sea Fisheries in the late fifties and early sixties. This only arose in relation to the enormous landings of sardine (Pilchard) and maasbanker (Horse Mackerel) by the Pelagic fleets of Walvis Bay and the Cape West Coast. Worldwide, fish resources were then considered impervious to over-fishing, in some cases due to their resource’s perceived size, and in others their wide distribution.

The International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) first recognised that recreational fishers’ landings might be a danger to the strength of various pelagic and demersal resources, due to diminishing Bluefin Tuna and Swordfish stocks. At more or less the same time, International Marine Scientists became aware that Cod landings in North Atlantic waters and Menhaden in Southern USA waters had started declining alarmingly. Here in South Africa, our scientific and sport-fishing communities (the latter led by Hymie Steyn) only really began acknowledging the risks of over-fishing and the need to act accordingly in the seventies, whereafter scientific evaluation began in earnest.

In the late seventies and early eighties of the last century, those South African Scientists who concentrated their research on our Inshore Marine resources, began to warn of the risks of over exploitation, and, firstly in the case of West Coast Rock Lobster, began considering the need to reduce landings. Secondly, they also recommended reducing exploitation effort on traditional Line-fish multi-species landings, and an extension of the minimal regulations that existed for those species at that time. By the nineties, their cries were becoming desperate, supported by such organisations as SAMLMA, whilst the authorities prevaricated and applied very few new restrictions. At the time of the millennium, with matters reaching a critical stage, the then responsible Minister finally declared an emergency for line-fish exploitation, gazetting regulations, which had been recommended by the scientists ten years earlier. Hardly surprisingly, these have not proved particularly effective, thus inevitably proved a failure in achieving the emergency’s intentions.

2004, saw the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) organisation founded with the support of the WWF, and they produced their first list grading seafood in terms of their sustainability relevant to the calculated and estimated strength of the resource. This was with the intention of influencing consumers, both commercial and the general public, in respect of discouraging the purchase and consumption of species that were already over-fished.

Right back then, I immediately queried its likely effectiveness for various reasons, which have not changed right up to the present. (SASSI, a worthwhile Initiative? Published 2006, viz.Index.)Today their list reads more like a scientific report, quite useless and too complex for public consumption. As you can imagine, most of my many friends are involved with fish one way or another, yet they no longer bother with the list. With their understanding of the overall situation being way above that of the general public, you can then understand its negative reception generally. The public, let alone businesses whose main concern is to cater for the requirements of their clientele, seldom accept pure scientific evaluation without reservation. This is particular so with the public where no confusion must exist by way of conflicting viewpoints or actions. That simply results in doubts about the integrity of the science, whether a fair assumption or not. Take global warming which is the ideal example of what happens in such circumstances.

SASSI has made some progress with large corporate business. However, I, in the company of many others despite what they and some of the scientific fraternity claim, believe that their influence over the proverbial man-in-the-street is insignificant. They must try but require more general support, if that is possible, with all stakeholders prepared to conform both voluntarily, and because of logical and effective Legislation. However, the real ‘Elephant’ in the room was, and still is, the fact of Branch Fisheries continuing complete inability to establish a Compliance Sector capable of performing its intended responsibilities. In fact, it is questionable whether our Government really has intentions to administer effectively some of our most important natural resources, such as those of the Marine Environment. What is the point of regulations, which are anyhow out of date, if there is no effective ability to enforce them?

Apart from their serious failure to maintain Compliance ability in almost any form, the Department of Branch Fisheries seems to have entirely lost its way in even considering what it might do in this regard. Faced with the problem of promises made to community based coastal fishers, there appears to be no feasible plan whatsoever in the pipeline. Branch Fisheries determination to empower individual or community participation in resource exploitation with little, if any, consideration for sustainability, further complicates this whole scenario. In fact, incompetent and apparently uneducated Departmental heads, and even the previous Minister, suggest that Political Expediency is more important than Sustainable Exploitation of a Natural Resource!?!

They then wish to do this by empowering groups of individuals in the form of community cooperatives.. Do the powers to be really believe this will achieve anything but further opportunity to cheat on the outcomes both monetarily and exploitation wise. Equally, where will the responsible Fisheries Department, already mired in like conflict, find either the money or the human capacity to develop and administer such structures? Unfortunately, our history of the past two decades is one of unbridled excesses in the form of increasing general corruptive and criminal action. This applies to the ANC elite hierarchy, right down to the lower echelons of government employees. Therefore, one must conclude the integrity of nearly all South Africans of all races has plummeted to dismal lows.

A further typical existing irony is the present order for three Multipurpose Patrol vessels for our Navy to, amongst other duties??, assist with Fishery Resource Protection! One must remind readers of the fact that it was only a few years ago that, after a year of so-called preparation, the Navy admitted that they did not have the ability to man, run, and maintain, such vessels originally built for Fisheries. These, for the most part, still remain un/underutilised, and, anyhow, what about the availability of so many other vessels in their possession? Are we able to afford such stupidity and one wonders what part or who of the ANC hegemony is benefitting illegally?

The sad result of all of this is that correctly and pragmatically, patiently and cautiously handled our valuable inshore resources could satisfy the needs of a considerable number of unemployed but well experienced fishers.

At the same time, these resources would continue to sustain probably the most important, and almost certainly, the largest sector, monetarily and economically, of the Fishing Industry, that being the Recreational component. Few people, certainly not the Government, realise its importance to the overall Tourism scenario and both direct and indirect job creation, apart from being the largest source of desperately needed recreational enjoyment for every part of our diverse population from the youth, through all age groups, to the retirees.

Now the first query is the legitimacy of SASSI grading species Red and Orange, whilst Branch Fisheries, who you claim support your efforts fully, (incidentally a claim they also make), issue commercial licences to exploit many of those so listed. Preferably, do away with Orange anyhow, making the decision as to whether it is really threatened or not. Both parties, yourselves and Branch Fisheries, have to find commonality in your evaluations, for failure to do so simply further weakens your case and efforts! Ideally, you will both find that commonality, which will then remove the existing confusion, and even derision, that presently exists.

If there are good and valid reasons to allow a level of landings despite a heavily reduced stock, you should both accept such and go along with it, providing the exploitation will be sustainable. Good examples of this are Kob and Perlemoen, of which more detail later. With exploitation allowed, then green they must be. If, by joint agreement, it should be red, then exploitation must be out of the question other than by the Recreational sector with very strict limitations; i.e. one per person, and/or four per Boat! If you cause all exploitation to cease, how on earth do you evaluate recovery?

The explanation you give for different harvesting methods attracting different colour coding makes absolutely no sense, and causes much of the confusion referred to above. Most stocks of fish are more localised in distribution than original believed, so only worry about those that inhabit our waters and ignore their strength or weakness elsewhere. If they are under threat in our waters, then it really does not matter how they are caught, they are still under threat! If they are under threat in other waters that is the other’s problem not ours.

You need to exercise a bit of pragmatism and common sense in compiling and presenting your information so that it makes sense. Grading fish stocks negatively due to exploitation methodology is dangerous and misleading. You sell yourselves based of sustainability! Many fishing methods have a negative effect on the Marine Environment, such as Bottom Trawling. However if you removed that method of exploitation, you would remove an irreplaceable and major source of needed protein for Human Consumption. Let others deal with improving methods to reduce by-catch and damage to the seabed. Stick to your knitting!

One is aware that WWF develops similar scenarios as the SASSI Initiative for many countries, but one does not know how they compare or have progressed there. Irrespective, it is useless and confusing to list on your South African card foreign caught species you consider under threat outside our own waters. Equally, deal only with fish that are harvested commercially, and omit species that are not targeted by either the commercial fleet or intentionally by Recreational Fishers. Their occasional landing, whether by intention or not, will not impact the resource. You cannot be all things to all circumstances!

This brings us back to the SASSI LIST and the conclusion that their efforts fall far short of their original intentions. We are about to dissect their current listing suggesting how it could be improved. This is one person’s proposal with obviously no certainty that it is right. However one must start somewhere, and if SASSI could be persuaded that the suggested changes to their list has some merit, maybe it would be that start. If they in turn could persuade Branch Fisheries that their revised list had validity, then maybe Branch Fisheries could, after serious consideration and maybe some “give and take” negotiation, apply the necessary amendments to current regulations to bring them in line with the list. Initially this would achieve far more than SASSI’s current efforts to protect these resources, while giving rise to a far more practical and logical list for the eyes of their targeted consumers.

So here follow the suggestions:

· Do not get involved in the recreational species that may not be sold. It hardly affects your audience of consumers, whether Commercial or the Public. The responsibility to enforce the legislation is solely that of Branch Fisheries. List them as recreational non-saleable, but with no further comment or explanation, which would only detract from your intentions.

· Please forget about believing that you should morally be able to determine through your lists where the Authorities and/or scientists may be wrong. WWF would be far better advised, together with the scientists, to consider their main duty should be to persuade themselves, the scientists, and the Authorities, what the right path of protection for every relevant species is, and then speak with unanimous agreement.

· Remember that, since catch restrictions and limitations were introduced over the years, with by far the most in 2000, their imposition has proved virtually ineffective. To correct them, that is the real challenge!

· You cannot be all things to all people, so do not try to be so! Take away all your italicised comments. They mean nothing to 90% plus of your target audience, and, for the most part, they are very inaccurate. Simplify it so that they understand only “Yes” or “No.”

· ABALONE (Perlemoen). The science is incomplete. For at least the last two decades, nobody will argue with the fact illegal harvesting has probably removed upwards of ten times the amount of the legal quota landings. Yet the resource shows every indication of having stabilised, albeit at a much lower level, and in deeper water. Here one can support the Minister’s recent decision, irrespective of his strange logic for that decision, to double the previously reduced Quota.

· However, I would most strongly suggest that recreationals should be allowed a low level of exploitation as well. It has always worried me that the ability to enjoy two of the most sought after seafood delicacies in the form of Rock Lobster and Perlemoen is denied our citizens due to the enormous export values they return. Surely, with a bit of innovative thinking, a degree of local landings could be reserved for local market sale only, which would then logically develop its own far more realistic local market price structure.

· Whoever believes there is market resistance to buying Geelbek, (Cape Salmon), or Kob for that matter, is seriously delusional. Sources tell one that prices have continued to rise as demand outstrips supplies more than tenfold!

· To the man-in-the-street, including commercial consumers, all Kabeljou species are all Kob just that, not Dusky or Silver, etc. Around our coastline no less than seven different species are caught. Asking the impossible of recognition is just a waste of time, just as it is when you suggest that the same species can be green if caught by one method, but another colour if harvested in a different way, or farmed. That is not for a consumer to determine, but, when relevant, must be up to the Authorities to legislate and enforce.

· Dusky kob were never, and are not successfully farmed in this country, any more than Yellowtail, so Kob and Geelbek overall should be Green as dealt with above.

· Hake should simply be shown as one item, as the public is not interested as to the species.

· Anchovy, Red Eye, and Pilchard, are hardly relevant as consumer fresh fish sales, so omit.

· As long as Mullet (harders) are unfortunately allowed to be trekked, with all sorts of other protected species, let alone caught in one area in set nets, they should be on the green list.

· Oysters, just the generic name, forget the rest.

· White mussel is hardly relevant, so omit.

· The term Tuna should be simply relevant to all species. Big eye tuna represent an insignificant proportion of South Africa’s catch; true Bluefin nil; Southern Bluefin only occasional presence; leaving probably as much as 90% plus consisting of Longfin (Albacore) and Yellowfin. They are certainly not under threat in our waters, particularly if Compliance does their job, so to Green!

· Salmon, even though all imported, as an exception back to Green.

· As there is no certainty as to the real state of this resource, Maasbanker (Cape Horse Mackerel) back to Green.

· From Orange and RED to the Green, John Dory, Carpenter (Silverfish), All Prawn (???), (add in Langostine, and Deep Water Crab), Octopus, Sole, Swordfish; as well as West Coast Rock Lobster, White Stumpnose, Abalone, Jacopever, Panga.

· Santer, Dageraad, Catface Rockcod, Englishman, Red Roman, Red Stumpnose (Miss Lucy), Scotsman, and Black Mussel Cracker (Poenskop), should join the Recreational list! No commercial exploitation or sale thereof!

· Biscuit Skate, Mako Shark, of absolutely no relevance, remove.

· Some of these changes are to outright mistakes, as are many listed on your colour coded site overall list!

· Once again, it is very confusing to go onto your site and find an overall much larger overall list! Firstly, it deals with many species from other countries that have nothing, or very little, to do with our waters! Secondly, it lists many species not targeted by any fishing activity other than by mistake, nor marketed. This particularly, but not only, applies to sharks. Thirdly, there are many mistakes.

The next obvious question is what can we do about all of this in order to try to bring about a recovery of species concentrated in the inshore environment out to about the eighty metre depth contour? I have written enough about that in the past, though nobody listens. Of course, I am not always right, but more often than not have been. However, this article is primarily an effort to make SASSI more relevant!

There is nothing that I will not try to motivate to be done to try to create the right climate to ensure only sustainable exploitation for all commercial species. At the same time, steps will need to be taken to allow a reasonable degree of rebuilding of heavily reduced stock levels, all of which will take the patience of many years.

Science, by its very nature, is wont to take a number of steps forward, only to find next that they got it partly, or altogether wrong, necessitating the loss of some of those steps before moving forward again. Humankind, through their ever-increasing presence, (from ONE to SEVEN billion in the last hundred years) muddies those research waters, let alone cyclical natural variations over which, if we have any control at all, can only be minimal.

To give you a personal example, I have fished False Bay for 75 years, nearly my whole life. I experienced the years of unbelievable plenty, through the years of steady depletion, when in the late nineties the exploitation effort started to fade away dramatically for lack of fish. Despite the biggest influx of Geelbek experienced there, and in fact along the whole East Coast from Cape point to Durban, we still saw that effort decline by probably eighty percent or more by 2005, at which level it seems to have stabilised. Yet the last fourteen years have yielded little or no improvement to availability in the Bay. That should frighten us all, and believe me, GLOBAL WARMING, as genuine as it is, has not resulted in sea temperature change around our coastline to the extent that fish stocks can yet be affected!

Well, you may well ask, is that the level of patience to which you referred? Or is it something else like perceived, (by the fish), alienation of a restricted environment caused by human activities? The unfortunate answer is we just do not yet know!

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