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Lobster walkout a dire blow to struggling West Coast fishing communities

Hundreds of thousands of crayfish walked out the ocean at Elands Bay on the West Coast. Locals here say they believe its an intense Red Tide. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Hundreds of thousands of crayfish walked out the ocean at Elands Bay on the West Coast. Locals here say they believe its an intense Red Tide. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Mar 7, 2022

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Cape Town - Fishing communities along the West Coast have been dealt another blow with the recent red tide which caused West Coast Rock Lobster to walk out of the sea.

Worth more than R500 million, and employing more than 4 200 people directly, the fishing industry is one of the area’s economic mainstays. But now it is feared that the red tide will cause a decrease to the already diminishing fishing stocks.

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Cape Nature Marine and Coasts operations senior manager Pierre de Villiers suggested the “walkout” of the lobster should be treated as a disaster similar to an oil spill or fire.

“Toxic algal blooms occur all along the Western Cape coastline. The cold, nutrient-rich waters mean algal blooms along the West Coast are extremely dense covering large areas. This results in large numbers of West Coast Rock Lobster being trapped within a bloom,” said De Villiers.

In most cases, De Villiers said, the WCRL died or escaped from the bloom on to the beach due to the lack of oxygen as these plants removed all the oxygen from the water at night.

Department of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries (Deff) spokesperson Albi Modise said although the rock lobster resource was always subjected to such events and was relatively resilient to them, there was concern that such conditions were becoming more frequent due to climate change - this continued to be monitored.

The Deff has since activated a WCRL contingency plan that, while vital, came six years after the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Seafood Initiative (Sassi) warned that the lobster could disappear altogether unless radical action was taken to save the fishery.

Modise said the contingency plan was directed specifically at these walkouts and not a broad plan for management of the West Coast rock lobster resource.

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SA United Fishing Front chairperson Pedro Garcia said the government and environmental authorities had reacted with poor timing to the walkout.

While they saw success in their court efforts last week to stop oil and gas exploration in the West Coast, the small-scale fishing and indigenous communities were now suffering another blow to their livelihoods and ocean resources with the deteriorating WCRL fishery, reduced Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and other challenges.

“We have been and continue to operate in a compliance and monitoring regime that is dysfunctional, we need to beef up our compliance in order to protect our resources. Poaching (and illegal fishing) has taken on an extremely devastating form in South Africa that is impacting the lives of normal fisher folk,” Garcia said.

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Masifundise Development Trust, which facilitated mass based community organisations in poor coastal areas, director Naseegh Jaffer said “TAC is reducing year after year”.

“West Coast fishing communities bear the brunt of this. For them, poverty is increasing and their quality of life remains miserable. They are also the first communities hit by the impact of climate change effects on the oceans.”

Steenberg’s Cove Fishing Community member Christian Adams said a number of environmental events have occurred over the past few months and scientists in South Africa jumped to conclusions in blaming all of these occurrences on the natural phenomenon called red tide.

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“We had octopus walkouts in Swakopmund, lobsters and sand sharks in Elands Bay, fish and lobster in Dwarskersbos and even more dead fish in Gansbaai. Can we truly say this is all due to the red tide?” Adams said.

Saldanha Bay small-scale fisher Solene Smith said as small-scale fishers, they bore the brunt of bad ocean and coastal management for many years and that government and environmental authorities failed the oceans by not adequately ensuring the sustainability of species such as WCRL.

“West Coast fishers have been affected quite heavily by the decreasing numbers of WCRL. Over the past couple of years we've been treated on the same level as the big companies and had to take the same percentage cut as them, even if we only have a fraction of the allocation. Our income for WCRL dropped from R30 000 to less than R10 000,” Adams said.

The resources required in small-scale fisheries have now been taken up, and Garcia said they would likely only become available after 10 to 15 years - this was not acceptable as they were promised that resources would be evenly split and a percentage should have been set aside for small-scale fishers.

Jaffer said it was their view that people sustain oceans by using its resources to protect life and livelihoods and if regulatory frameworks continued to fail coastal communities then a healthy future for the lobster and west coast communities was at risk.

“Kreef walk outs can be reduced if industrial pressure on the ocean space is reduced and an integrated policy approach is adopted. Currently our different policies are framed in isolation of each other,” said Jaffer.

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