Cape Town - The Western Cape’s fishermen turned to a higher power on Sunday, praying to God to save them from a government they accuse of having decimated the traditional linefish industry “with the stroke of a pen”.
At an emotional prayer service in Hout Bay on Sunday, pastor Norman Frost accused the government of being “unrighteous and unjust” by denying hundreds of fishermen fishing rights.
“Jesus picked fishermen to be his disciples. And so too you are the children of God. What has been done to you is not your fault. It is the government that is forcing people into situations where they have no option but to poach,” he said.
Fishermen and their families held hands, some weeping.
The service came a week after the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Daff) announced new long-term fishing rights in eight fishing sectors.
Of the 303 permit holders in 2013, only 115 were granted the right to carry on with their operations. The previous rights were extended in 2005 and expired on New Year’s Eve.
“What the government does not understand is that this is not just a livelihood, it is a way of life,” said Anton Mangiagalli, 45, a second-generation Hout Bay fisherman who caught his first snoek at the age of four. Mangiagalli’s application for new long-term rights was denied.
“We know no other way to live. It affects our families and the families of our crew in the deepest way. I have not slept all week, I’m in a state of utter disbelief.”
As a pastor laid his hands on Mangiagalli, his daughter, Megan, 10, started sobbing uncontrollably.
“She came to me and asked: ‘Daddy, will I be able to carry on with my singing lessons?’ I honestly could not answer her, our futures are uncertain,” said Mangiagalli later.
The fishermen’s representative organisation, the SA Commercial Linefish Association (Sacla), was preparing to have discussions with Daff tomorrow.
Sacla chairman Wally Croombe said: “After months of slighting fishermen, this is the first time the department has shown a willingness to sit down and to talk. This is massively encouraging and means the fishermen do not have to take to protest action.”
At two Sacla meetings last week – one in Cape Town and one on the West Coast – angry fishermen threatened to poach in defiance of the rights allocation, to close roads and to picket the department’s offices.
Croombe admitted the negotiations with the department weren’t going to be easy.
Even the best-case scenario would see many established fishermen remain without rights. Sacla wants Daff to re-evaluate the awarding of rights to 100 new entrants, some of whom do not own boats and have little history or experience in the industry.
Pieter van Dalen, the DA’s spokesman for agriculture, forestry and fisheries, said he was not convinced the matter would be resolved through meetings with the department.
“We remain hopeful that this can be resolved diplomatically, but I suspect this will end up in the High Court,” Van Dalen said.
The fishermen have already started pooling money for an urgent interdict application in the Western Cape High Court should negotiations with Daff fail.
Mangiagalli has threatened that “uncontrollable” protests would erupt if there was no positive feedback from Daff by Wednesday.
“The department has always underestimated us, but they do not know what we are capable of. We do not want to lose the support of the public, but there is no telling what will happen if the department continues to deny us our rights. We were born with fishing in our blood, so this is not something small to us. People are very emotional, but we are willing to wait for the negotiations to come.”
Although Daff’s deputy director-general Desmond Stevens has consistently defended the rights allocation process, he said he was willing to engage with the fishermen towards finding a solution to the impasse.
“I just want to warn fishermen not to listen to people who are trying to portray the department in a bad light for political reasons,” he said.