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Nyar, Annsilla  (2007) Subsistence fishermen are fighting for survival. The Mercury : -.

First Published in The Mercury

Durban is largely defined through its beautiful beachfront and all the resources and opportunities that the ocean offers the inhabitants of the city. The bounties of the Indian Ocean offer a variety of simple pleasures to Durbanites and our visitors: tossing blissfully in its warm waves, riding it with a surfboard, or dragging our feet through it on a beach stroll at sunset. But behind that blissful beachfront landscape lies a very different reality than most of us understand. There are some for whom the oceanís generosity is mediated through the stranglehold of corporate interests, turning the ocean into more than a site of recreation and leisure, but instead one of bitter contestation and exploitation.

Last week Durbanís subsistence fishing community translated their privately suffered concerns into collective action against the closure of Durbanís north (and now imminent) south piers by the National Ports Authority in the name of Ďdevelopmentí.

The fishermenís march is a protest against the National Ports Authorityís developmental project for the Durban piers, but it also a protest against their historically based marginalization and suffering under a system which was supposed to offer them equity and redress. According to the ports authority, the port is being widened and deepened for safety and security reasons, a project which will reach completion in 2010. Currently, the north pier is closed off to the public and the south pier will be closed shortly this June. There has been absolutely no consultation or recognition of the impact that this project will have on the livelihoods of the subsistence fishermen. The city is cut off from part of one of its most popular and beloved oceanfront venues and the stranglehold of big business is tightened over the ever precarious subsistence fishing industry.

Research shows that there are approximately 30 000 subsistence fishermen in South Africa who rely exclusively on the sea as the main source of food and small scale income. Theirs is an age old livelihood, as old as the history of the coastal indigenous peoples itself. The majority of subsistence fishermen continue fishing as a family-based livelihood tradition and have taken it up as early as possible, in order to put food on their tables. Typically, they are characterized by low educational levels and a low skills base which disadvantages them in the search for long term food and livelihood security. The modest catches of these small scale fishermen represents barely a drop in the ocean for an industry which is worth almost R2,5 billion a year.

The plight of subsistence fishermen, as part of the broad environmental concerns and the overall transformation of the fishing industry and, has been on the table from the inception of the post-apartheid dispensation. It has been addressed through high levels of debate, discussion, and various pieces of legislation intended to regulate the industry with the emphasis on equity and redress. But as all issues to do with the poor and powerless, it has never been addressed squarely in social development and poverty eradication terms. So it has now fallen by the wayside, superceded by the interests of elites and big business, much to the detriment of families and households who rely on subsistence fishing incomes to survive.

This situation is a blatant contradiction of official promises and legislative intent to transform the fishing industry for the benefit of all South Africans. During apartheid, the fishing industry was controlled exclusively by and for white South Africans, with racial quotas formally concentrating the industry in the hands of white-owned commercial enterprises. One could benefit from the fishing industry only if you were white and subsistence fishermen being mostly non-white, suffered the impoverishing consequences of this discrimination. This promised to change in 1994 with the advent of the democratic transition, with legislation drafted to deracialise and ultimately transform, the industry. The Marine Living Resources Act was passed in 1998 toward such an end, identifying subsistence fishermen as one group of fishers who were entitled to exploit-responsibly-the resources of the ocean.

But the Marine Living Resources Act has failed to protect the interests of subsistence fishermen. The fishing industry is still deeply skewed in favour of capital, this time minus the privileging of the racial factor. The industry itself is heavily protected and regulated against foreign competition, with the state retaining exclusive control over our coastal resources, even resisting pressure from the World Trade Organisation to sell part or any of our fishing rights. But even though the fishing industry is protected from outside forces, the free market reigns supreme within, through a monopoly maintained by four major South African companies. The black empowerment taking place in the industry with black businessmen, senior ANC members, former anti-apartheid activists etc, means nothing for the rights of poor fishermen.

Full access to the industry for the historically disadvantaged was intended to be facilitated through a quota system which required a permit to be obtained for anyone utilizing marine resources for subsistence, recreational or commercial purposes. But the process of obtaining a permit was difficult and expensive as well as beset with bureaucracy in the form of complicated application form procedures. Very few fishermen were actually able to succeed in obtaining a permit and it became illegal for those without a permit to continue their way of life. A concerted lobby from the ANC and established industry interests saw the cancellation of subsistence permits in 2002, thereby entrenching the unstable nature of subsistence fishing livelihoods.

The current quota system is similarly fraught with problems. It is a universal quota system as a safeguard against over-fishing, despite the fact that subsistence fishing is said to account for less than 10% of marine resources. It gives large commercial companies the freedom to buy quotas from black empowerment groups, undermining the whole point of transformation.

There are disturbing reports of corruption and nepotism within the Department of Marine and Coastal Management (M&CM) regarding the distribution of permits and quotas. Permits are said to be arbitrarily allocated, with the actual issuing taking an extended period of a few months during which time fishermen are not allowed to work. With no guarantees of fishing quotas for the next year and without access to fishing equipment such as boats and nets, subsistence fishing is a highly unstable profession which offers little by way of job or food security. Without the security of long term fishing rights and capital, many subsistence fishing families are becoming more deeply marginalized and impoverished than ever before-even more so than during apartheid.

Hence the protests by Durbanís community of subsistence fishermen. Their backs are to the wall. Their livelihoods, their very way of life, is being eroded under the stranglehold of big business and elite interests.

We need answers for the poor governance and mismanagement we have seen thus far in the fishing industry. For example, where is the Fisheries Transformation Council, specifically set up to address issues of imbalance and access for poor fishing communities? Where is the report into corruption in the department of coastal and marine management which was withheld from the public? Why is any move toward transformation so long in coming?

Most immediately in Durban, answers to these vexed questions come at the expense of the subsistence fishermen. The National Ports Authority must recognize the concerns of the subsistence fishing industry. Our beaches and our oceans are also at stake, along with the industry.

Also on the CCS Website
Fishermen tackle port authority over closure of piers

Annsilla Nyar is a Research Fellow at the Center for Civil Society, based at the University of KwaZulu Natal.

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