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Will formal governance processes and a small-scale fisheries policy improve small-scale fishers’ livelihoods, so they are less vulnerable?

22 November 2010
Research and original report by Moenieba Isaacs, reported for Another Countryside by Rebecca Pointer

Fishing communities are organising to demand fishing laws change to include their right to participate in planning, implementing and managing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to protect marine and coastal biodiversity. But what are the underlying issues and how does policy creation need to shift? One case study in Struisbaai highlights key issues and examines if current small-scale fisher policy processes create an enabling environment for fishers.

Indigenous and local communities have many customs and lengthy histories of using South Africa’s well-established network of MPAs, covering 21% of the 3,000km coastline. Fishing in Struisbaai (population: 2,052 in 1,588 households) can be traced to the first nation KhoiSan who used vyfers (fish traps) in the inter-tidal zone to catch elf (Pomatomus saltatrix), harder (Liza richardsonii), kolstert (Diplodus sargus capensis), strepie (Sarpa salpa) and galjoen (Dichistius capensis). Traditionally, clans and families maintain traps; women harvest, gut, cut and cook.

Other livelihood activities include:

  • farm work and domestic cleaning services;
  • harvesting sour figs to make preserves and berries to make cleaning wax (although these plants are now protected and only 100 women have harvesting permits); and
  • working for the government public works programme ‘Working for Coast-Care’ (workers earn US$8 a day to clean up debris, rubble and waste from the coastline).

Fishing is still the most important source of livelihoods in Struisbaai. Yet MPA legislation inadequately provides for local community-based resource governance; instead top-down initiatives are imposed with no respect for the concept of ‘sustainable use’. Fisheries management in South Africa has instead adopted an ecosystem management approach to fisheries, and declared 20% of the coast as MPAs. Formal provisions in the Marine Living Resources Act 18 of 1998 (MLRA) created more opportunities for the elite to access fishing rights than opportunities for the poor. So bona fide fishers were left out of formal allocation processes[i];[ii];[iii];[iv] and as traditional fishers were unable to access formal fishing rights, many resorted to poaching in MPAs, as one fisher from Arniston describes:

We poach during the night and day. Spring tide, during full moon is the best time to go for abalone as we are able to see. We take whatever we see. We do not have any other options, no fishing rights, and no restricted areas to fish.  We know it is illegal but we are struggling to survive.

Tension between conservation and social justice imperatives shape MPA management in South Africa, but also needs to consider the vulnerability, structural poverty and livelihood needs of coastal communities. While the Protected Areas Act implies that traditional communities should secure an equitable share of MPA benefits and participate in MPA planning, the MLRA does not specifically cover traditional fishers’ rights[v]. Instead it allocates individual rights to commercial, recreational and subsistence fishers, without recognising fishing communities or artisanal fishers as rights holders. Marginalising small-scale fishers in fisheries policy and management spills over into MPA management, so fishers are further excluded and their traditional livelihoods undermined. In November 2007 the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism committed to develop a small-scale fisheries policy to cover poor fishers’ rights, but the first draft of the policy does not mention MPAs and their impact on coastal livelihoods.

MPAs harmful to traditional fishing livelihoods in Struisbaai

According to the Cape Agulhas Municapality’s Draft Integrated Development Report 2009/10, unemployment rates in the area are a staggeringly high 61.5%; 20% of households are on the government welfare system; and 85% of households earn less than US$426 a month. Most fisher households are low-skilled with only basic literacy and numeracy skills. However, since waters near Struisbaai were declared an MPA, the livelihoods of the indigenous community have been negatively affected and poaching has increased. While marine and coastal scientists base restrictions on science, fishers feel they were not consulted and local/indigenous knowledge was not considered relevant in determining policy.

Angling, beach seine and fish traps are traditional winter subsistence sources. Fishers use beach seine to target harders (Liza richardsonii) (locally known as bokkoms), which they salt, dry and sell to Western Cape farm workers — who rely on it for protein. In 2006, no beach seine permits were allocated in Struisbaai; with no winter species allocated, household incomes plummeted and poverty levels increased. So, fishers and rights holders echo the need to reinstate beach seine rights.  Fishers also said 500% price increases for 2010/11 recreational permits — which they use for angling — will drive them to fish illegally.

While Struisbaai is an important international and domestic tourist destination, fisher households rarely access tourism opportunities. Entrepreneurs who recently moved to the area organise fishing trips; fish is processed and sold at the harbor, but no coloured people hold rights for this. It has been suggested that Struisbaai fishers should have harvesting permits to rehabilitate fish traps and catch fish only for subsistence; but Struisbaai fishers point out that they need to engage in commercial activities to sustain their families.

Individuals received permits to fish for West Coast rock lobster, hake, abalone, line fish and wild oysters but, since most of these species are harvested outside the area, the expense of transporting crews to the fishing grounds renders such economic opportunities unviable. Fishers say the best fishing areas are within the MPA, so they enter restricted areas regularly. Fishers argue, current regulations are ‘keeping us behind from benefitting from the economic development. We need and want to go big with the promise to share. We need speed’. To benefit from economic development, fishers argue they need to access: land, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) infrastructure, and markets.

Under apartheid, many Struisbaai fisher families were evicted from an area called Skipskop, (now de Hoop Marine Protected Area) which was used as a weapons testing ground by Armscor (now Denel) from 1989. Before the eviction, local fishers harvested rich resources from this open access inshore zone to sustain their livelihoods, but those rights have still not been restored, and new regulations on inshore resources mean fishers now need permits to harvest species once accessed openly for subsistence; the quantity, size and areas for harvest are also restricted. The fishers believe they have an historical right to fish in the MPA, they have derived no economic benefit from eviction and received no compensation for it. The waters they are allowed to fish in are small and fishers say: ‘It does not make sense to fish in the same place every day for 20 years; we will only deplete the resource.’

New regulations, permits, taxes and restrictions = few rights for traditional fishing communities

In 2006, new regulations forced boat owners to put Vehicle Monitoring Systems (VMS) onboard, at a cost of R3,700–R8,000 and R300 airtime/month. Permit holders couldn’t afford this, so Struisbaai fishers protested against VMS installation and applied for an exemption, which was granted. But in 2008 the exemption was not granted again, so fishers continued to fish, then their fish were confiscated and they were fined up to R2,500. This led to further protest action, with fishers blocking the harbour to demand the exemption be extended and that local economic development focus on poverty alleviation. Fishers view the VMS as a policeman and switch it off when they enter restricted areas; to them marine resources are over-regulated, Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) is more keen on protecting MPAs than on the livelihoods of local communities, and ‘the MPA makes us criminals in our own fishing grounds’. Fishers question permit allocation to recreational ski-boats when locals are not allowed to enter their fishing grounds.

Struisbaai has six ski-boats and sixteen chukkies (motorised wooden boats), each with a crew of eight fishers. Permits are allocated on Total Allowable Effort and the number and size of the boats. MCM would like to lessen effort on line fish species and cut the number of boats to 450 countrywide due to resource constraints. But chukkie boat owners say they need to cover fifteen nautical miles offshore from Struisbaai harbour, which can take up to five hours in chukkies, so they urgently want to convert to ski-boats and access the relevant permits. Before, fish used to be in the four mile inshore zone, but fish are moving deeper due to climate change. Fishers once used sail boats in the inshore zone to target multiple species, but current summer fishing activities target only yellow tail and cape salmon. Commercial pelagic boats have moved into the area and target the food (anchovy, sardine, and mackerel) of yellow tail and cape salmon.

Chukkie boat fishers say the Territorial User Rights Fisheries (TURF) system promoted in the draft small-scale fisheries policy will not be for them as: ‘We are hunters and the fish we target are migratory so we should be too.’ They also say white commercial line fishers from Cape Town are allowed to harvest with ski-boats and yield around R200,000 a week in  season, while chukkie crew earn at most R3,000 a week for eight weeks, as yellow tail and cape salmon are sold raw for R20–R30/kg domestically. If only local fishers could fish these waters, the season would last longer, and if they had ski-boats they could fish up to the 20 mile zone.

While there are many new restrictions, permits, registration, taxes and higher fuel prices, there has been a concurrent rise in poaching. Many fishers poach for subsistence, with unemployed young men getting more involved in night-time abalone poaching; poor fishers also show discontent with the current system by poaching. So criminal activity is rising in Struisbaai and fishers say abalone poaching is out of control — which they blame on the rights allocation process, the MPA no-take zone, few livelihood opportunities, and a way to access quick and easy money. Struisbaai fishers admit poaching is now so widespread, with organised crime involved, that it would be difficult and dangerous to control on their own, but feel that creating more inclusive permit opportunities would greatly alleviate the necessity to poach. Fishers said they would only comply with new regulations if they were involved in managing resources, had open access to their traditional harvesting area (de Hoop marine reserve), and if local/indigenous knowledge systems were included in fishing zone research. The community would like scientists to engage them (in Afrikaans) on their findings and supply information about stock assessments, not just make recommendations to MCM. They argue fishers and scientists should work together to create food security from marine resources.

Relationships between crew and boat owners are also conflicted; crew are not guaranteed work from one day to the next, they can easily lose their place on a boat, and feel exploited and vulnerable because the skipper has the permit — not them. Although crew and permit holders split earnings 50/50 (the permit holders’ 50% also covers boat maintenance, fuel and bait), fishers feel that a few people monopolise the value chain and exploit them. Permit holders are not transparent about the price per kg, which can vary from R12 to R30/kg. Fishers would prefer:

  • a more collective permit allocation system
  • modernisation of boats (with the help of a state subsidy)
  • to have permits to fish more species (e.g. snoek) and in other zones
  • a more transparent market structure
  • to earn more from the value chain.

Policy development paradigm shift essential to tackling poverty

A national task team of fishing communities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academics and government officials have developed a new small-scale policy, and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) is following up on the task team’s suggestions and consulting stakeholders before finalising the official policy document. The framework being developed promotes collective rights, multi-species allocation and TURF in a co-management system, but current permit holders oppose the system and want to hold onto their individual permits — so broader and deeper consultation with existing permit holders on allocation regimes is ongoing. The fishers are not well organised, with no representative body dealing with fisher struggles, management, development and conservation at community level — and this seems to work in the interests of existing permit holders.

Coastal communities have hotly debated how to create sustainable livelihoods and conserve marine resources; planning and implementing MPAs requires a solid knowledge of ecological, socio-economic and cultural disciplines. The drafting process for a new small-scale fisheries policy has created space for fishers to hold management structures to account on the impacts of long-term permit allocation. In the draft policy, government, NGOs and community-based organisations advocate for co-management of marine resources, but crucially, if fisher communities — especially the marginalised poor — are to benefit, local community institutions must be created to address poverty; it is still unclear who will create such institutions/ community structures to promote social justice, and accommodate both marginalised poor fishers and commercial rights holders. While the policy development process has helped fishing communities formalise their role and struggles in the governance process, creating locally-based management structures attuned to the relationship between poverty reduction, environmental sustainability and resource allocation is still a challenge. However, fishing communities need secure long-term rights to resources to be in place before a system of shared decision-making, rule-creation, monitoring and enforcement between fishers and authorities is possible.

The process so far has also focussed on bio-ecological scientific knowledge and overlooked traditional knowledge, social science and human ecology research. The policy will only be accepted by local communities if they include other knowledge systems in determining fishing rights, agreeing on fishing gear and regulating fishing activities. Increased community participation will heighten awareness about the benefits of effective management (and co-management), increase the likelihood that biodiversity conservation and fisheries management will be achieved, and thereby increase the efficiency of management decision-making. So a fundamental paradigm shift must be facilitated to establish partnership between local fisher communities and fisheries scientists. Implementing integrated research projects that harness indigenous knowledge, secure their participation and demonstrate tangible benefits of MPAs, will contribute greatly to gaining their support for the objectives of the MPA.

The existing Individual Transfer Quota (ITQ) approach of one-size-fits-all, used for the last fifteen years, led to the elite capturing rights at the expense of the poor. The small-scale policy should guide the management plans of local communities, and should be adaptable to local conditions. Policy should consider a hybrid system of rights allocation. To ensure value chain benefits go to local communities, a co-operative system to manage inshore resource processing (with a focus on involving women in post-harvest activities) and marketing should be considered, especially with high value species that target the export market.

DAFF should secure fishers rights and develop a MPA management policy to benefit local communities, with strong, clear links between MPA policy and the current draft small-scale fisheries policy — especially in the southern Cape, where poor communities live next to MPAs. Since poor fishers typically have low numeracy and literacy levels, fishers must be given training (including adult basic education) on new regulations and policies. This means the state must be more directly involved, providing support where needed, and directing local government funding to build infrastructure for fish harvesting, processing and marketing. Instead of dealing with poverty by providing interim relief measures on an ad hoc basis, the government must create trans-disciplinary teams of scientists, social scientists, economists, etc. to address poverty, drawing on local and indigenous knowledge, and feeding research into management decisions.

[i] Isaacs M and Hara M (2007) Transformation in the South African fishing industry and its ability to redistribute fishing rights. American Fisheries Society Symposium 49.

[ii] Isaacs M (2003) Understanding the Social Processes and Politics of Implementing a New Fisheries Policy, the Marine Living Resources Act 18 of 1998 in South Africa. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Cape.

[iii] Isaacs M (2006) Small-scale fisheries reform: Expectations, hopes and dreams of ‘a better life for all’. Marine Policy 30: 51–59.

[iv] Isaacs M, Hara M and Raakjær J (2007) Has reforming South African fisheries contributed to wealth redistribution and poverty alleviation?  Ocean & Coastal Management 50: 301–313.

[v] Sunde J and Isaacs M (2008) Marine Conservation and Coastal Communities: Who Carries the Costs? A Study of Marine Protected Areas and Their Impact on Traditional Small-Scale Fishing Communities in South Africa. International Collective in Support of Fishworkers: Chennai, India.


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