Cape Town.Congestion as snoek boats return to Oceana Power Boat Club in Granger Bay. Picture:Brenton Geach Reporter: Sarah Lockwood

South Africa’s “Big Five” fishing firms have come under fire from Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, who told a closed meeting of fisheries division staff in Cape Town that she would take away their fishing rights when they came up for review next year.

She told staff in the department last week that they should not take notes or record her remarks, but news of her briefing leaked to Feike chief executive Shaheen Moolla, a former adviser to previous ministers.

The “white” fishing companies that controlled the fishing industry – and enjoyed significant fishing quotas – needed to cede these rights to community fishermen, Joemat-Pettersson reportedly said. She promised that the Industrial Development Corporation would be approached to buy fishing vessels to allow the small players to tap into the industry.

Moolla, whose company does marine research, reported the minister’s remarks in a blog. This was sent to the minister’s special adviser, Rams Mabote, who responded: “Officially the minister will not respond to blogs about staff meetings, except to say the issue of quota rights are a legal process that will be handled following normal due process when the time of allocations comes only at the end of 2013.”

Moolla said he had received input from staff present – who included senior management – who had confirmed that the minister had repeated a refrain from two years ago when she first referred to “white fishing companies” that controlled all the fishing quotas.

He said taking away their fishing licences would amount to a form of “nationalisation” of the industry”.

FishSA chairman Tim Redell, whose organisation represents commercial fishing companies, said the minister was being nicknamed “loony Tina tuna” and “Daffy duck”– after the acronym for the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: Daff.

He acknowledged that the Big Five – Oceana, I&J, Sea Harvest, FoodCorp and Viking – probably controlled about 60 percent of the industry and their share of the industry was growing considerably. “Consolidation actually is a necessity to survive.”

Redell, who is a director of Viking, said the minister was talking at cross purposes.

There was no point in bringing in more vessels into the deep-sea fishing industry – where the Big Five predominated, particularly in the hake catch – as there were too many vessels already.

He said the long-term licences granted in 2005 for hake deep sea trawl quotas were valid until 2020.

The 2013 allocation round – for eight years – was for the total allowance catch in fish species found closer to the coast, such as tuna and West Coast rock lobster, which involved 3 000 companies.

Moolla pointed out that the big companies were all black empowered, with at least 30 percent black ownership.

He noted that Sekunjalo’s Premier Fishing, entirely black owned, was probably the seventh-biggest fishing company, while Lusitania was probably in sixth place.

Moolla described the minister’s remarks as deeply problematic as the seven largest companies were “good employers”. A 2004 study found that the average worker at the big companies earned about R90 000 a year, substantially more than the average fisherman with a fishing quota.

DA fisheries spokesman Pieter van Dalen said that when he confronted the minister with the fact that the fishing sector was actually 66 percent black, she said this was only true if you counted coloured people and Indians as black.

“This shows that she was hell-bent on destroying an industry that has done its level best to transform. How black must you be?” he asked.