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Massive imports of yellowtail from the Far East and “snoek” from New Zealand have flooded the local retail market, forcing many local commercial fishermen out of business and threatening widespread poverty.
The problem is compounded by big retailers not labelling the fish as imports, say the fishermen, and they are particularly unhappy that some of the imported yellowtail are farmed fish, a fact not indicated to consumers.
The situation is “unacceptable”, says Wally Croome, chairman of the SA Commercial Linefish Association that represents 10 associations along the coast between northern KwaZulu-Natal and the West Coast.
And poor catches of local snoek compounded the problem, he added.
“The linefish sector is bleeding, absolutely bleeding, at the moment.”
Now they are appealing for help to conservation group WWF-SA, which manages the popular Sassi (Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative) conservation project aimed at educating consumers about seafood products.
Part of the problem is that no one seems to know exactly how much fish is being imported, or even when such imports are legal. In 2008, the government was not able to find documentation relating to the import of cheap small yellowtail that fisheries scientists said had clearly been farmed and that suddenly flooded the Cape market.
There are suggestions – not yet backed by evidence – that something similar may be happening with some of the current imports.
In an open letter to WWF, Croome said the linefish sector was still being managed under the state of emergency declared by then environment minister Valli Moosa in 2000, when fishing effort was reduced by 70 percent. Despite this, linefish catches had “dwindled dramatically” over the past few years.
According to data collected for the awarding of a new long-term linefishing rights later this year and next year, the actual days fished in Western Cape waters had dropped from an average of 240 a year in the 2000 to 2004 period to a low of 125 in the 2007 to 2012 period.
“A large percentage of the 450 rights holders who were awarded long-term rights in 2005 have fallen out of this sector as it is no longer financially viable. Profit margins are being eroded by massive increases in operating costs, with fuel making up as much as 65 percent of this cost.”
Western Cape fishermen were lucky because they had access to two main optimally-harvested species: yellowtail and snoek, Croome said. Many of them fished these two species almost exclusively and were “totally reliant” on them for their livelihood.
But linefishers traditionally experienced extreme price variation for their catches. “Fish prices can vary from R50 to R10 a snoek within two-to-three weeks of a good snoek run and R30/kg for yellowtail to R12 as soon as the markets are saturated. These price fluctuations have a dramatic impact on our profit margins.”
The fishermen had enjoyed a good run of yellowtail at Yzerfontein and at Cape Point recently, but prices had plummeted from R30 to R13/kg within two weeks.
“The fish buyers are actually advising us that they’re unable to take in fish. Many of us that don’t have fixed markets for yellowtail have had to stop fishing, leaving our crew members and ourselves without an income.”
The main cause was the glut of imported yellowtail that had flooded the South African market.
“What really aggravates the situation is that people are being misled by the fish importers, traders and retailers in that they are not being made aware of the fact that they are buying imported yellowtail, as opposed to locally-caught fish, and imported farmed yellowtail,” said Croome.
“The same scenario exists with the importation of New Zealand barracuda which is being marketed as snoek without any reference to the fact that it is not locally caught fish but an imported equivalent.”
He warned that without being able to sell catches, the local linefish sector would collapse, “impacting the livelihoods of as many as 2 000-plus Western Cape fishers who crew on our vessels, and their families who rely on this income for their livelihood”.
“This issue needs to be addressed and rectified,” Croome said.
On top of this, this season had seen very poor snoek catches.
“It’s a problem – there have been no snoek in any volume since July.”
Junaid Francis, WWF-SA’s seafood industry liaison officer, told Croome it was “exactly these kinds of concerns” that the organisation’s seafood naming project was seeking to eradicate and that he was preparing a comprehensive response.