The drop in catches in the perlemoen industry is extremely worrying, says Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana.

Cape Town - Perlemoen rights holders have been given a one-year extension to continue catching until the end of July next year, and their current annual season has been extended by two months, to the end of September.

This was announced by Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana on the last official day of the 10-year rights that expired on Thursday.

Zokwana’s predecessor, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, had hinted broadly that the commercial perlemoen fishery would be closed again and that new rights would not be granted, mainly because of the impact on perlemoen stocks from massive poaching.

In July 2010, she had reinstated the 302 rights after they had been suspended by then environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk in October 2007 when he declared an emergency in the perlemoen fishery.

Announcing the exemptions, Zokwana described the decline in catches in the perlemoen fishery as “extremely worrying”.

“Hence our decision takes into consideration the long-term conservation of the fishery. This downward trend suggests that the current stock levels would likely only be able to sustain one abalone fishing season,” he said.

The department would engage in “extensive consultations” with the industry, he added.

“This will include a recovery plan that will look at, among other things, alternative livelihoods for those involved in the sector. Our decision has taken into consideration socio-economic factors that have contributed to hardships experienced in coastal communities, and particularly in communities that rely on abalone for their livelihood.”

Rights holder Scott Russell of SA Abalone Industry Association welcomed Zokwana’s announcement, saying it would “certainly help avoid the socio-economic crisis faced by hundreds of economically vulnerable, law-abiding small scale abalone fishers throughout the Western Cape”.

But he added: “Sadly though, this is only a temporary solution - like a small plaster on a gaping wound.

“It’s imperative that the minister ensures that South Africa’s valuable abalone resource is effectively protected from long-rampant poaching. This is the only way to provide a sustainable future.”

And Zokwana’s announcement will not stave off a possible investigation by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, which was prompted by complaints by several perlemoen rights holders as to why the department had failed to carry out a timeous new perlemoen rights allocation.

Advocate and fishing industry consultant Shaheen Moolla, who is advising the rights holders, said their complaint would not be withdrawn.

“The complaint stands as the department has again failed to develop and implement a legally valid fishing rights allocation process.

“The allocation of exemptions, although a reprieve, is extremely prejudicial and cannot compare with long-term stable and bankable fishing rights.

“An ‘exemption’ is, after all, a drastic action that allows fishing despite the provisions of section 18 of the Marine Living Resources Act,” he said.

This section makes it illegal to fish “unless a right to undertake or engage in such an activity... has been granted to such a person by the minister”.

Moolla argued that exemptions did not confer any level of tenure security and would only encourage further illegality and irresponsible fishing practices, “as fishers and poachers alike will try and take out as much fish as no one knows if there will be a ‘fishing right’ next year.

“After 12 years of fishing rights, we have now regressed to this farcical and chaotic state which will only harm small-scale fisheries like abalone,” he charged.

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Cape Argus