A demonstrator addresses a crowd with a loudspeaker during a protest in Hout Bay related to fishing permits and quota allocations. Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA

Wherever there is illegal fishing, conflict arises. I am not talking small-town fireworks by Hangberg residents, protesting what they called fishing quotas at the Hout Bay harbour on the 40th anniversary of the death of Steve Biko.

The kind of conflict that arises when the small guy, that helpless fisherman choking under restrictive quotas, gets frustrated. It is the conflict that can run into millions of dollars. ShippingWatch.com reported that, at the height of Somali piracy in 2013, raiders received $360 million (R4.7 bn)in ransom paid.

The piracy industry then cost the world around $18 billion; that is 6% of the South African economy.

Why am I mixing Somali piracy and the Hout Bay protests over fishing quotas alleged or real? Because what we call piracy in Somalia started out as a beef over fishing.

Local fishermen stood by as foreigners rolled into their waters with big fishing nets and trawlers, depriving them of their fair catch.

Unable to compete, they were left with no other option but to capture some boats in exchange for ransom.

The situation at Hout Bay is nothing close to Somali piracy - yet; but there is nothing to stop it from escalating.

My anxiety stems from the official response by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and from my knowledge of how piracy evolves.

The statement on the government website www.gov.za opens with a defeatist admission that the department has "not taken a decision on the total allowable catch (TAC) for West Coast Rock Lobster".

What follows is that perennial display of South African paralysis: "a consultative process is under way which is based on a recommendation to reduce the TAC from the previous fishing season".

So, the protesters had a good reason to get nervous?

The statement then labels the protest action of the fishing community of Hangberg "misplaced and misleading as the decision has not yet been finalised".

If the fishing season in the Northern Cape commences on October 1, exactly two weeks hence, when did the department expect the fishers to start planning?

It is disturbing that the department disqualifies the protest as premature, when on the other hand it recognises that the protesters depend on fishing "resources for food and as a source of income to meet basic needs".

All over Africa, be it in Lake Victoria, which is shared by Kenya (6% by area), Uganda (43%) and Tanzania (51%), or in Somalia or West Africa, governments fail to curb the biggest culprit - instead, trifling with quotas aimed at controlling the small guy.

The real enemy is illegal foreign fishing; in the case of African waters, this is almost exclusively the sinful preserve of the Chinese vessels. These are involved in what is termed illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, already estimated at $2bn in West African waters alone.

The parody of this is that these estimates are an attempt to measure what is mainly unreported and illegal - meaning they are probably understated, because that is what unreported incidents are.

At least 300 000 jobs could be saved in West Africa, if unreported and unregulated fishing activities were stopped.

However, even more importantly, our governments will not need to police protest actions or enforce insignificant quotas against people who do not pose any risk of overfishing.

Fishermen are among the most natural and diligent hustlers. You could be jogging at 7am on Mozambique Island, where you are likely to meet a fisherman already done for the day, carrying a big fish to his family. On Durban beach, it is the same. At 6am or 10pm, they are the first on and the last off the jetty as they patiently wait for a breakthrough.

They do not catch more than they need and they know how to co-exist with others. Imposing quotas on them, while ignoring the hi-tech Chinese trawlers, is fiddling away while economic injustice is corroding our unequal economy even more.

Leave those Hout Bay hustlers alone; go after the big Chinese illegals.

* Author of Africa is Open for Business; media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs, and a weekly columnist for African Independent - Twitter Handle: @VictorAfrica

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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