THE small-scale fisheries industry which continues to buckle under the impact of Covid-19 is still awaiting the outcome of an application to the Western Cape High Court to scrap current fishing rights.
This emerged in a webinar hosted by the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) on the effects Covid-19 restrictions had on the sector that contributes billions to the national economy.
Issues around permits, fishermen not being regarded as essential workers, export restrictions as well as issues around policy inconsistencies were highlighted as challenges that heavily impacted communities.
In February, Minister for Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy announced her intention to approach the High Court to review and set aside the process of awarding small-scale fishing rights in the Western Cape to start afresh following allegations that the previous process was flawed.
Craig Smith of the World Wide Fund for Nature SA (WWF) said they have commissioned a report that looks into what impact Covid-19 had on the sector and found that the sector began feeling the brunt of the pandemic long before South Africa went into lockdown.
“The first impacts were felt in the West Coast rock lobster industry when China banned its imports of lobster (before lock down in December). This impacted large scale and small scale fisheries. Storage became a big issue as exports became difficult as they reached capacity for lobster,” he said.
“Then in hard lock down, people could not get out to sea until fisheries were seen as an essential service, but permits were hard to obtain with officials working at home, which makes it difficult to contact people. We had reports on the east coast of harassment of fisheries, even when they had permits.
“Restaurants were closed and that affected small-scale fishers and informal traders which used this market. Small-scale fishers had to engage directly with buyers. Even though there is a lot of sympathy with small-scale fishers, there is a reluctance to buy from them because they are not formalised. The infrastructure is just not there even though there is an expressed interest in the retail sector. We need to look at building the value chain for small-scale fishers for the local market.”
PLAAS’s Tracey Dennis said the beginning of hard lockdown was right around the end of summer season which is when fishermen typically depend on casual work to support families - this was made difficult by the restriction on movements.
“Eventually they got permits to go to sea as essential workers but in November when the peak season started again infection rates increased and more people were affected in that wave. The agricultural sector received support but fisheries did not,” she said.
“Most of the fish is taken out of the community as soon as it's caught and placed in ice trucks to Cape Town and to exports. Covid interrupted this flow in stopping and slowing the demand. So during the peak period in December the price of fish was so low it was not worth going to sea. It was very bad.”
Nicholas Taylor, a fisherman from Kleinmond, said: “It’s very difficult as a community when we cannot go out to sea. But we survived as fishers because there was some support for small scale fishers from the government and WWF also assisted with some vouchers and that helped us out as a community.
“In December we tried to get our crayfish out but we couldn’t get our permits in time because the government was on lockdown so we couldn’t export anything in December. In January we sold a few crayfish but we are still struggling to get fish out of the water because we can’t get permits from the government.
“We are getting a bit better and are trying to make up for what we have lost. There were food parcels but many people complained they did not get them. It is difficult to find government people who we need for permits because they work from home. It’s a very big problem to fish without a permit. The fine is R5 000.”