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Jun 11, 1999

Storm in fishing net as quota war rages on

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© Reuse this A recent court case between the Depart- ment of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and 61 fishing companies has had repercussions that will be felt throughout South Africa’s fishing industry for years to come, long after judgment against the department was heard on April 23.

The application, brought against the ministry by Langklip See Produkte and BJ Engelbrecht Visserye, was prompted by the State’s reallocation of rock-lobster quotas in an effort to facilitate market entry by ‘previously-disadvantaged’ fishermen: although the sentiment was welcomed by the industry as a whole, the implementation was roundly slated.

The government has been forced to backpedal on the issue, and has allocated 1 569 t of the total allowable catch of West Coast rock lobster proportionally to the 1997–98 quota holders, and has allocated the remainder to new entrants for transformation purposes.

Not only did this deadlock paralyse the West Coast rock-lobster industry, but the ripple effects of the litigation have been felt through to the considerably larger whitefish sector, which has had to wait for five months to have its quotas issued.

The Directorate of Marine and Coastal Management, the arm of the department entrusted with the daunting task of restructuring the industry at large, has put the entire quota process on ice, in an attempt to avoid similar wrangling, pending the outcome of the case.

“We are currently in negotiations with the hake industry in particular in order to distribute fishing rights equitably – all credit must go to the industry for being equal partners in the process,” says directorate: communications spokesperson Themba Ngada of the talks, which were finalised at the end of last month.

Equal partners they may be, but failure of the quotas to be issued has hit the sector hard, with all those affected feeling the pinch; an industry source reveals that fishermen, net manufacturers and refrigeration companies have buckled under the financial strain, and retrenchments are fast becoming the order of the day.

“Two of our vessels are tied up in port at the moment and the crews, numbering 70, as well as the shore-support network, have had to be retrenched,” says Irvin and Johnson (I&J) trawling manager Tim Ridell, who hastens to add that the staff will be re-employed if the new quotas merit the relaunch of the boats.

I&J, along with a handful of other fishing giants, by virtue of their highly-developed shore infrastructure and huge employee counts, have been given provisional quotas by the minister in order to cover overheads – smaller companies, however, have been less fortunate, and have been idle since the beginning of the year, looking on helplessly as debt from fixed costs mounts.

“Withholding the licences has had a negative effect on the industry, particularly in terms of new entrants who have been unable to plan or commit to expenditure,” reveals independent fisherman Andrew McLachlan.

“Guys who are serious about fishing have been affected badly; those who have made investments are in deep trouble because there is zero cash flow and, as a result, the financial institutions have listed us a high-risk industry, which makes business difficult,” he laments, remaining reluctant to apportion blame to any party, particularly the ministry, which he says had little choice but to implement the conditions of the Marine Living Resources Act.

Uncertainty stemming from the delay in issuing the quotas, regardless of fault, has led to delay in the creation of 11 jobs in McLachlan’s fishery alone and, if the obvious lack of job-creation opportunities and ongoing job losses for the whole sector are taken into account, the damage done to coastal economies appears substantial.

Repeated calls, from Sea Harvest in particular, to reissue last year’s quotas while the quota process was refined and readied for implementation were summarily ignored by the powers-that-be.

It appears, ironically, that the very people the minister, with the best intentions, has been trying to assist, are suffering as a result of the restructuring, which a report in the UK’s Fishing News International, in a feature titled ‘Transition in South Africa’, says is an effort by the government aimed at “securing its political credentials before a nationwide election in June”; whether or not it has the desired effect among the electorate remains to be seen.

“The uncertainty created by the hold on fishing quotas has brought the vessel-repowering sector and the market for new vessels to a complete standstill.

“We are by far the strongest in the field, and we are taking immense strain – I shudder to think how the smaller companies are suffering,” says Barlows Power Systems manager: marine division Bruce McCracken.

This contention is borne out by Vredenburg shipbuilder Sachal and Stevens MD Mark Stevens, who singles out Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs Peter Mokaba for praise, despite the downturn in business created by the legislation.

“Mokaba is doing a sterling job by finally getting the process moving, but the fact is that we have lost five monthsworth of production; the quota issue has brought the entire industry to a halt, and we are waiting with bated breath for the new licences to be issued now that the applications have gone in,” says Stevens, who spearheaded the company’s impressive survival strategy during the lean months, which included increased activity in ship repair and steelwork.

The government appears to have the support of the industry and appears, in part at least, to share its sense of urgency, as overdrafts go deeper and deeper into the red, and increasing numbers of workers join the ranks of the unemployed.

“We are anxious to get this process going, and the issue of these rights is dependent on these negotiations; therefore we are not working within a specific timeframe.

“It is essentially our role to issue fishing licences, but we cannot be held responsible for jobs lost while the process is under review,” states Ngada, who stresses that the talks have equal participation from the industry and the directorate.

Another thorny issue is that regarding what is widely called ‘paper-fish’.

Quotas issued by the directorate to successful applicants who, it appears, have little interest in fishing, but are simply riding on the empowerment ticket, have created an outcry from affected parties within the industry.

McLachlin’s view is that the long-term problem of stability faced by the government must be tackled by striking a balance between black empowerment and those simply wanting to secure quotas in order to resell them to big business; these ‘paper quotas’, he says, must be taken away.

But the value of these quotas to emerging fishermen cannot be discounted completely, as they may be a valuable capital resource for previously-disadvantaged fishermen to secure a stake in larger companies which are equipped with the infrastructure, but lack long-term access to sufficient supplies of raw material – the viability of such synergies are no doubt being explored.

Once South Africa’s fishing industry has emerged from this state of flux, a final hurdle threatening its survival must be negotiated, namely the threat of foreign fishermen raiding our waters.

Much has been made of the government’s proposed plans to allow the Spanish access to South Africa’s hallowed fishing territory.

“The Spanish consume three times more fish than the UK, and they are notorious for their shady fishing practices,” says Stevens, backed by Reddell, who has equally strong views on their involvement in local fishing.

“If the Spanish come in they will pillage our waters, and that will be a nightmare for the industry,” concurs Ridell.

The government, on the other hand, appears scornful of the concerns of the industry.

“The issue of foreign fishing companies in local waters is an old one; it is perfectly clear under the Marine Living Resources Act 18 of 1998 that South African waters are for South Africa only; however, concessions will be made by the minister in the case of foreign companies that want to fish where there is no local capacity.

“Even then, the licences will not be granted willy-nilly, but with strict provisos – they will have to train and employ local staff and invest in shore infrastructure, among other things,” indicates Ngada.

In theory this appears to be a sound proposition, but a questionmark hangs over the ability of the authorities to police catch limits, given the Spaniards’ reputation for over-fishing.
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