The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior III.
The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior III.
A group of penguins clusters on the beach of Marion, one of two islands that make up the Prince Edward Islands. WWF wants the islands declared a marine protected area. Photo: Frederik-Willem Fourie
A group of penguins clusters on the beach of Marion, one of two islands that make up the Prince Edward Islands. WWF wants the islands declared a marine protected area. Photo: Frederik-Willem Fourie

Johannesburg - The guests wore collared shirts and blazers. Canapés and cocktails stood next to reports on water resources and carbon markets. Outside, Joburg was getting ready for another Phuza Thursday. We were a six-hour drive from the nearest coastline at another of the Gordon Institute of Business Science forums – but fishing was on the agenda.

“Leading companies are starting to realise that sustainability is a core business interest,” WWF International director general Jim Leape told the audience.

It wasn’t simply a philanthropic gesture to “green” your business any more, he said. It just made good business sense. Security of supply.

And when it came to fishing, man, was that supply in need of security.

“Fishing has increased five times over since 1950,” said Leape. “We are basically vacuuming fish from every corner of the Earth today. In a few years’ time, will there still be fish for us to sell?”

Overfishing wasn’t an issue affecting only coastal communities. It was universal, the second-largest environmental threat after climate change.

Adding to it was illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – pirate fishing.

“It cheats everybody involved,” said Leape. And none more so than developing countries without the naval resources to patrol their coastlines, to ward off foreign vessels from pillaging their waters.

Halfway between Durban and Antarctica, deep in the Southern Ocean, lie the Prince Edward Islands – wild, windy, volcanic rocks teeming with life along their coastlines. The islands are part of South Africa, home to one of our scientific bases. But their waters are receiving none of the protection of being under our flag.

“We haven’t had any significant large-scale IUU fishing of our offshore resources – with the exception of toothfish around the Prince Edward Islands,” said Dr Samantha Petersen, senior manager of WWF’s marine programme in South Africa.

“It’s a global problem, the serial depletion of the species. As a fleet finds the stock, they fish it until it’s gone. By the time governments respond, the resource is completely exploited.”

WWF wants the South African government to declare it a marine protected area (MPA), a nature reserve at sea, legally protecting all its species.

There’s been talk about it for a decade, but still no action.

And, according to Petersen, we’re facing problems closer to home, where inshore species like abalone and rock lobster are heavily exploited.

“These resources aren’t exported, but they’re crucial for the food security of coastal communities,” explained Petersen.

“They’re hungry, poor. They depend on these resources and have little alternative but to fish them illegally. There’s a really strong social driver.”

Where we were getting it right were with the offshore resources like hake, sardine, anchovy – our big fish exports.

Well, up until recently, said Petersen.

For 10 years, Smit Amandla Marine managed the fleet of seven vessels that conducted patrols and research in South Africa’s waters – crucial to ensuring the fishing quotas set each year were sustainable.

In September last year, their contract was extended until the end of March 2012. Then, almost exactly a year ago, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) awarded the tender to another company, Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium, one of whose subsidiary companies was, well, a fishing company.

Smit Amandla called it a conflict of interests and tried to interdict the tender.

In February, DAFF dropped the Sekunjalo contract. In March, it called for an investigation into Smit Amandla, citing corruption.

Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson said all fishing tenders needed to be reviewed and then issued a press release saying independent investigations “confirmed” Smit Amandla’s corruption. Smit Amandla now wants to sue DAFF for libel.

Meanwhile, the marine management contract quietly expired on March 31. South Africa’s research vessels stayed in port while the independent observers, required onboard each fishing vessel to ensure compliance with sustainable fishing laws, remained firmly on dry ground.

“We’re now trying to manage our resources with outdated information,” said Joemat-Pettersson. “We’re really putting ourselves and our fisheries in a very precarious position.”

For its part, DAFF says things aren’t that bad.

According to chief director of fisheries Dr Johann Augustyn, the department missed two of its major annual surveys – the demersal survey of deepwater fish, and the horse mackerel survey. Without the information, scientists would have to use last year’s data to determine quotas for fishing companies in the coming year.

But, he said, that wasn’t yet a crucial issue. “Over a long period of time, this would affect the accuracy of our assessments, but we haven’t missed that much yet.”

He said the government was also looking at the catch data of fishing companies as an indicator of what was taking place in the ecosystem.

The navy was being trained to take over where the marine companies had left off so that the department wouldn’t miss two important upcoming surveys: the West Coast hake survey in January, and the pelagic survey set for this month.

How long the navy will be needed instead of an actual marine management company, is unclear.

The DAFF-Smit Amandla-Sekunjalo affair drags on nearly a year later.

For the present, we still have our Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification – that indicator to consumers that our big-exporting hake, at least, is sustainably fished.

But our inshore resources remain woefully exploited. - The Star