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HomeAfrica-NewsArtisanal fishermen in South Africa have been marginalized since apartheid...

Artisanal fishermen in South Africa have been marginalized since apartheid…


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South Africa is home to tens of thousands of artisanal fishermen and fishing families. Some fish exclusively for consumption and subsistence, while others make up a small commercial sector.

Artisanal fishers have long suffered discrimination in South Africa. Under the apartheid government’s segregation policies, many were forcibly removed from their homes and traditional fishing grounds. They were also unable to sell their catch.

Despite high hopes for reform under the post-apartheid government, the policies did not favor most small-scale fisheries. Instead, they emphasized privatization and economic growth.

As a result, artisanal fishers in the Western Cape province joined forces with leading NGOs and academics. They fought for the rights of the sector and the recognition of their way of life. This led to the creation of a regulatory framework that recognizes their constitutional rights to equity, food security, subsistence and culture.

This Small Scale Framework consists of a Small Scale Policy (2012), the Amended Marine Living Resources Act (MLRA) (2014) and the Small Scale Regulations (2016). It provides fishing access rights to small-scale fishing communities and specifically recognizes vulnerable groups within the fishing sector (such as women, youth, the elderly and the disabled).

However, in a recent research paper, we argued that while the framework is progressive in some respects, it does not go far enough. It does not sufficiently take into account the vulnerability and marginalization of artisanal fishermen and fishing communities. The poor implementation of the framework has added to these concerns. So has the COVID pandemic.

Thus, the contribution of the framework to poverty reduction and development is undermined.

Vulnerabilities in the small-scale sector

Throughout the world, artisanal fishers are subject to factors that make them vulnerable. These include resource depletion, geographic isolation, unsafe working conditions, market fluctuations, climate change, lack of access to healthcare and education, and social exclusion.

In South Africa, for example, stocks caught by small-scale fishers, particularly high-value stocks such as abalone and West Coast rock lobster, are severely overexploited. The harvestable amount of West Coast rock lobster is estimated to be around 2% of pre-harvest levels.

Within small-scale communities, further inequalities may emerge. Women, youth, and those of different cultures and religions are often discriminated against. For example, in South Africa, traditional practices mean that although women are active in the sector, they are generally excluded from ‘fishing community’ meetings with government actors.

Elite capture is a common problem when it comes to the allocation of fishing benefits. Bad actors (including criminals) co-opt processes to gain access to high-value resources. For example, a study in Cape Town exposed former government employees who demanded fees to help community members obtain fishing rights. This excluded many fishermen who did not have the means to navigate the complicated processes to obtain these rights.

These problems can undermine the effectiveness of social interventions designed to reduce poverty in artisanal fisheries. Such interventions may include the allocation of fishing rights or alternative livelihood programs to reduce dependence on marine and aquatic resources.

Halfway between prevention and progress

The Small Scale Framework falls short. It attempts to alleviate poverty by allocating fishing rights to the small-scale sector, but imposes strict conditions on the allocation. Youth, foreign residents, fishers engaged in alternative livelihoods, and any fisher who is not part of a designated community cannot obtain rights.

The framework also lacks ways to ensure that rights are distributed fairly. It does not have provisions that could help reduce elite capture. Better community consultation and the provision of information in understandable formats would help in this regard.

The academic community has called for an update to the Small Scale Policy. The South African Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has also indicated its intention to amend the Marine Living Resources Act.

Amendments to the framework should focus on reducing vulnerability and marginalization in the sector in the following ways:

  • Livelihood diversification: Currently, to obtain fishing rights, a person must derive the majority of their livelihood from fishing. However, many small-scale fishers in South Africa diversify their livelihoods. The criteria for the allocation of fishing rights should be whether a person depends on these resources for their food and livelihood, not whether they derive the majority of their livelihood from fishing.
  • Fishermen who do not belong to a fishing community should be able to apply for individual permits. In particular, KwaZulu-Natal subsistence fishermen have a tradition of individual fishing. Currently, many use recreational licenses. These only provide for limited catches and do not allow the sale or barter of the fish.
  • Stricter procedures must be put in place to help marginalized groups within the sector. They need training in value chain development and sustainable harvesting practices. Collaborative activities, such as cooperatives of fish processors, should be promoted. People must be duly included and consulted on issues that affect them.
  • Elite capture must be addressed. This is a form of corruption in which a few powerful individuals “capture” resources to the detriment of the community at large. Involving the entire community in decision-making processes would help prevent this corruption. And the information must be presented in understandable formats: in the local language and orally via radio and television. There should also be simplified and cheap procedures to access government institutions, such as mobile applications. Applications are more accessible to artisanal fishers than, for example, procedures that require access to a computer or printer.
  • Finally, the eligibility criteria for obtaining fishing rights should be expanded to include a larger subset of the sector. Currently, the commercial sector is prioritized and the recreational sector remains largely unregulated. This is part of a larger equity issue in South African fisheries. Rights may need to be reduced in the commercial and recreational sectors to allow for equitable and sustainable development in the fisheries sector.

There are many opportunities and challenges for artisanal fisheries in South Africa and around the world. However, the equitable distribution of resources and recognition of the realities experienced by these fishermen is vital to realizing the potential of the sector. This will help contribute to poverty reduction, sustainable livelihoods and development.

Kathleen Auld, Research Associate, World Maritime University and Loretta Feris, Professor of Environmental Law and Deputy Director, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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