Cape Town - In one of her last public comments as outgoing fisheries minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson dropped the equivalent of a marine conservation hand-grenade by announcing that the flagship linefish species, the red steenbras, might be removed from the prohibited species list.
She suggested that commercial catches of this species could be allowed as a replacement for the loss of abalone (perlemoen) rights if – as appears likely – harvesting of this heavily poached shellfish is again restricted.
Her comments were met with dismay in the marine conservation sector, as the red steenbras has been completely protected since 2012 because its population has crashed by more than 99 percent since the late 1980s.
John Duncan, senior marine programme manager of conservation group WWF-SA, said the move would be “very concerning” if it were true, as stocks of this fish were still at an all-time low.
Joemat-Pettersson’s comments came during an interview in last Friday’s Die Burger newspaper.
She was quoted as saying that studies showed that commercial perlemoen quotas – which she reintroduced in July 2010 after her predecessor, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, had closed this fishery in 2007 – should be closed again because the resource had reached a record low point.
“All the signs are there that this (perlemoen) sector must be closed. When that is done, there will have to be alternatives offered to affected communities. In Hawston, the catching of red steenbras, for example, could be allowed again as an alternative.”
She was quoted as saying that the Hawston community had itself made this proposal and people there were thus aware that the perlemoen decision could be made.
Joemat-Pettersson’s office has not responded to a request for confirmation that she was accurately quoted, but a reply to the Cape Argus by her former department last week appeared to confirm that consideration was being given to banning commercial perlemoen harvesting.
It has been banned for recreational fishing since 2003.
The red steenbras is an endemic species occurring only in South African waters between Cape Vidal in the north and False Bay in the south.
Its main population is off the Transkei coastline.
In an article published by the Cape Boat and Skiboat Club, senior scientist at the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban, Dr Bruce Mann, explained the background to its protected status.
“In November 2009 I was asked by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to join a team of international experts to assess the status of sparid species from around the world,” Mann said.
“My job was to provide detailed assessments of the 42 sparid species found in South African waters.”
The results were staggering, he said. “Commercial catch rates for red steenbras along the entire South African coast have declined by 99 percent over the past 25 years.”
Pointing out that the linefish sector was still in a state of emergency and that the department had made a commitment to managing this fishery for recovery, Duncan said there was “a lot of concern” around the current uncertainty surrounding the number of rights-holders active in the sector.
“The number of rights granted in this sector really needs to be based on what the fishery can sustain according to ‘best available science’. The linefishery should not be used as a ‘catch-all’ for people who lose their fishing rights in some other sector for some reason,” he said. - Cape Argus