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Turning the tide on poaching: Will new policy keep illegal fishing at bay?

CAPE TOWN - Poachers have a bad reputation - understandably so. Those who most frequently make the headlines are caught with millions of rands worth of abalone and have links to large criminal syndicates. So on the afternoon I meet a group of crayfish poachers in Hout Bay to learn about their nightly activities, I am prepared for anything.

But before the evening is over, I would have my camera bag courteously carried up a mountain and even be offered a chivalrous piggyback ride to stop my shoes from getting wet. I would learn about the backbreaking hikes carrying 80kg bags of crayfish up the mountain and the disheartening prospect of having your row boat destroyed by authorities. I would hear how salt water strips the skin off a human in no time, turning brown-skinned bodies white; and about dense fog snuffing out the lives of even the most experienced seamen in an instant.

Poachers, as I was to learn, are not a different species. They are sometimes just regular fishermen who found themselves out of legal options to make a living, leaving them with little choice but to ply their only trade, come what may. They harbour a deep mistrust of the authorities, which stems from a long history of exclusion and exploitation; from watching big companies trawl tons of fish from the ocean, while getting persecuted for taking a fraction illegally; and it has contributed to a sense of rebellious entitlement.

"You have in the background a policy that has been developed that is marginalising small-scale fishers," says Professor Moenieba Isaacs.

Isaacs, a researcher at the University of the Western Cape, grew up in a fishing community. She knows the challenges experienced by the fishing community personally and has experienced the impact of institutional marginalisation of small-scale fishers first hand. She explains that illegal fishing first took the form of political protest, especially after the Group Areas Act saw many fishing communities forcibly removed from their coastal settlements. It was a rebellion against what they viewed as unjust laws.

Isaacs says what followed after 1994 were policies that favoured a commercial fishing sector, further relegating traditional fishers to the margins of industry and society and - ultimately - poverty and alienating them from the system.

"And there are a number of cases around the coast where people are resorting to saying that 'I will fish even if you recognise me or not'," she adds.

Turning their backs on a system that turned its back on them, fishers resumed what they saw as a God-given right, with or without permits. Many communities have consequently become hotbeds for illegal activities and developed links with lucrative criminal syndicates.

Hangberg is one such community, where ongoing battles with authorities range from the passive aggressive to the outright violent. The residents have clashed with police on a number of occasions, with abalone raids cited as the aggravating factor on at least one occasion.

Many residents of Hangberg are impoverished. Picture: Aletta Harrison/EWN.

But the group of crayfish poachers I meet this evening emphasise they want nothing to do with gang-related activities and say all they're guilty of is an honest day's work. Most of their crayfish finds its way onto local restaurant menus, rather than the export market that legally caught crayfish tends to favour.

"If the weather's good, the water's flat and I'm willing, why not? We here are a fishing village…" says Stephen*.

He explains that his whole family was at one stage employed in a local fish factory which closed its doors one day with no notice.

"Okay, there are also gangsters and things like that here, but I avoid that. This is my thing. I have a child in my life now, which means I've forgotten that. I want to look after my family."

Isaacs argues people rarely distinguish between the illegal and the criminal - since some poachers steer clear of bigger, riskier moneymaking tactics and fish purely to feed their families.

The men work in teams of up to seven, including those who prepare the bags of sardines to be used as bait in the crayfish traps and the duo that usually goes out to sea in a small rowboat. The sun has dipped behind the mountain already and they will soon make their way over to the marine protected area (MPA) behind the Sentinel, an imposing peak that overlooks Hout Bay. Going out an night presents the best chance of evading authorities.

Watch: EWN meets crayfish poachers in Hangberg to discover more about illegal fishing activities.

Working alongside Stephen, David* explains despite crayfish's upmarket connotation and high end value, they see very little profit for their work.

West Coast Rock Lobster is a threatened species, but is still popular in restaurants and is priced at between R300 and R600 on menus at nearby establishments. However, the value chain does not reward the poachers, who are forced to part with a kilogram of crayfish for around R80.

"Many people think 'crayfish - it's big bucks instantly'," David says.

"I'm going to be blunt, I'll make maybe R200 tomorrow… It's a measly living, but we've got to do it. Why? We know if we're not going to catch fish we're not going to eat tomorrow. We've got police that we've got to run away from, we've got the weather conditions that we've got to take note of - I mean it gets damn cold at the back there…

"This is a shit job and the worst part is your life is at stake all night, all the time, every time. You can't play games with water."

In Hangberg, I learn, poaching is not a dirty word; it's a badge of honour. It means you're willing to risk your life for very little reward. It means you're not burgling aflluent Hout Bay homes for money. It means you're providing for your children and, for many, it means you're continuing a family legacy of being a fisherman.

Those who don't poach may have a small quota that's enough to put food on the table, but not enough to cover expenses like children's clothes or school fees. Even those with permits, I'm told, often supplement their income with illegal catches.

The Department of Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has been aware of fishers' grievances for many years. Even when permits were available in theory, in practice it was a totally different story.

"Our rights application process was way too complicated," admits DAFF's Small-Scale Fisheries director Craig Smith.

"As a result many traditional fishers either did not complete the application forms, or if they had, they were just not successful in their application…"

Quotas that should have ended up with the traditional fishers in some cases ended up in the hands of opportunists, due to procedures that favoured commercial entities. Those with boats and business know-how reaped the biggest benefits.

Uneducated fishers, many who left school at a young age to work on the sea, were confounded by the bureaucracy, says Hangberg community activist Donovan van der Heyden.

"The jargon… in how policies and laws are written up and how the application forms are drawn up - [fishers] are forced in most cases to seek help from people who are more educated and in that process a lot of academics, professional people - lawyers, doctors, advocates - saw an opportunity to actually con these semi-literate or illiterate fishers out of their fishing rights," he explains.

A fisherman guts a mackerel in Kleinmond harbour. Picture: Aletta Harrison/EWN.

While fishers won an Equality Court ruling in 2007, which dictated the department had to develop an official small-scale fisheries (SSF) policy, it took years to develop.

In the meantime, the interim relief (IR) permit system which was supposed to temporarily allocate rights to keep fishers going was also widely criticised for being open to exploitation and opportunism, without truly rewarding the deserving parties with quotas that take into account seasonality or commercial viability.

Experienced fishers who have spent their entire lives at sea have no dignity, Van der Heyden says. He paints a picture of a generation who, instead of looking back with pride at their careers, are still struggling to put food on the table in their 60s or 70s.

While developing the new SSF policy, DAFF realised there was no legal recognition whatsoever for traditional fishers and it would first have to amend existing legislation to accommodate the sector.

"We recognised that there was no legal framework for the small-scale fishing sector, because the Marine Resources Act, which is the main source of legislation governing fisheries regulations in South Africa, only recognised a commercial sector, a recreational sector and subsistence sector. So the important thing was to bring about this new sector called small-scale…" says Smith.

SEA CHANGE

On 8 March 2016 - almost a decade after the 2007 court ruling - the department published the promulgation of the amended act.

With it traditional fishers were legally recognised for the very first time and DAFF could commence with the process of implementing the small-scale fisheries policy.

Despite a legacy of mistrust and suspicion, there is cautious optimism as witnessed on 12 April 2016 in Hangberg where hundreds of people - many among them poachers or former poachers - fill a community hall to register, excited at the prospect of having legal rights to access the sea.

According to DAFF, Hangberg is among 280 communities from South Africa's four coastal provinces that have expressed interest in being a part of the new SSF policy.

Isaacs says official recognition is a good first step, but the policy's success will depend on the fine print.

"The most important add-on to that is: what rights - what species - will they be allocated, and will those species be economically viable? And it also needs to be sustainable, that's the key part," she says.

This highlights the major challenge: How will the sector accommodate hundreds - if not thousands - of new fishers and provide them with viable livelihoods, while at the same time paying mind to the pressures on the resource?

Recognising the inextricable link between fishers and future of marine resources is a question WWF South Africa set out to answer two years ago in anticipation of the policy's launch.

"The policy faced challenges because it tries to give rights to many fishers… and at the same time the resource on which these people depend is highly depleted," WWF-SA Small Scale Fisheries Officer Mkululi Silandela explains.

Silandela has been working with fishers in the small Overberg fishing community of Kleinmond for the last two years.

The Kogelberg Small Scale Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP) aims to develop best-practice systems and tools that can be implemented elsewhere, so communities can reap maximum economic benefit from their catches, while at the same time being sensitive to environmental and sustainability issues.

Key to the Kogelberg FIP is the fact that they're testing the cooperative approach, which is exactly the form the SSF policy will take.

A Kleinmond fisherman holds up his fresh catch. Picture: Aletta Harrison/EWN.

Silandela says creative and strategic thinking is required in order to maximise the value of catches, but the good news is that they've already identified some potential solutions.

One of them is a mobile phone app, developed in partnership with Vodacom and the University of Cape Town, that will help fishers register and monitor their catches

Called Abalobi (isiXhosa for 'fisher'), the app will hopefully empower fishers to manage their own resources as a collective, furthering a sense of ownership - which WWF hopes will contribute to sustainable practices.

The other promising development is the establishment of new value chains. Through fostering relationships with restaurants in the harbour, two have agreed to serve locally caught fish and market it as such, on the condition that fishers work with WWF on sustainable practices.

"That link is very important because if you look at the restaurants that are serving seafood here, 70% of the seafood that they serve comes from Cape Town," Silandela explains.

"That does not mean that there's no seafood coming from this ocean here; it's simply that the supply chain currently is not balanced; it's not aware of its responsibility to the local people. Currently it's influenced by the middleman, and the middleman does not have the best interest of the community at heart all the time. And therefore fishers are losing. They are price takers and their fish is shipped to Cape Town, only for them to buy it back after three weeks as frozen and the value is destroyed in the process.

"And that also is a problem because it encourages fishers to go for the race to the bottom and want to fish more without thinking about how they can add value to what they're catching.

"So if that model works, that will be one way of making sure that the communities do not really rush to catch the fish and lose in the process."

It becomes clear through speaking to Silandela that the success of the small-scale fishers depends almost exclusively on how they're received by the market and by consumers. Bouyed by the newly developed value chain, there's a sense of optimism among fishers in Kleinmond.

Isaacs believes there's already a breed of responsible consumer in the city, which means there's a burgeoning market ready to buy into small-scale fisheries.

"I have absolutely no doubt that the Cape Town consumer market would want to support a small-scale market because we in Cape Town are conscious - conscious of what we eat, where it's sourced, how it's sourced and whether it's sourced sustainably."

However, she cautions that retailers also need to buy in, especially those guilty of practices such as marketing imported New Zealand barracuda as 'snoek'.

If everyone is on board, it is possible to make the link between small-scale and the higher end market, she says.

An end to poaching, researchers agree, ultimately depends on legal fishing to be more lucrative. And the Kleinmond pilot project has shown that the policy can succeed if quotas take into account seasonality of fish species and their commercial value; new value chains are established; and small-scale fishers manage to access new markets. Commercial quotas will also need to be adjusted to accommodate the small-scale sector and all of this will, it is hoped, not only eradicate the need to poach, but foster a much more sustainable fishing sector in the process.

This is good news for the environmentally conscious consumer. But is up to you and me to demand transparency and social responsibility from our restaurants and retailers.

Our reward? The prospect of being able to choose from various species of fresh, locally-caught fish and a clean conscience that comes from supporting a sustainable industry.

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

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