Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson has described as "historic" a new amendment Bill which will give small-scale fishers collective fishing rights for the first time, helping to root out poverty and poaching in South Africa's 150 fishing communities.
The Marine Living Resources Amendment Bill, which is expected to come before the National Assembly's portfolio committee on agriculture, forestry and fisheries next Tuesday, allows for the allocation of fishing rights to identified small-scale fishing communities, which have previously been excluded from the commercial fishing rights allocation process.
Small-scale fishing policy
The Bill intends to bring into force the department's small-scale fishing policy, which supports the setting up of community-based legal entities - in the form of co-operatives - by small-scale fishers to allow fishing communities access to fishing rights.
Under the policy, the department proposes that certain areas along the coast be demarcated and prioritised for small-scale fishers.
Desmond Stevens, the department's acting deputy director-general of fisheries, said the department had so far engaged with about 80% of stakeholders - including small-scale fishing associations and large fishing companies - and that a broad consensus had been reached on the need for fishing rights for small-scale fishers.
Stevens said the small-scale fishing policy would introduce a co-management approach which could give each fishing community, together with local authorities, the department and scientists, shared responsibility managing the fishery sector.
Once a fishing community had established a community-based legal entity, the community would then be able to apply to the minister to have an area designated a small-scale fishing community area.
It is proposed that comprehensive regular assessments be conducted to determine which species should be made available to small-scale fishers, sustainable harvesting targets and, where appropriate, the boundaries of areas demarcated for small-scale fishers.
Counting SA's subsistence fishers
In its current strategic plan, the department envisages that 70% of eight of the current 22 fishing sectors will be allocated to small businesses and small-scale fishers - including sectors like line fish and lobster.
The department has identified 150 fishing communities, as well as possible areas to be demarcated exclusively for small-scale fishers, and the number of species that can be included in fishing rights.
While the National Development Plan (NDP) states that South Africa has about 29 000 subsistence fishers, Stevens said the department had about 8 000 such fishers on its books.
However, he said the department intended to appoint an independent organisation to conduct a count of the country's fishers; a list would be then published for members of the public to comment on.
Through giving communities access to fishing rights, the Bill, he said, would also help reduce the incidence of poaching, as communities would be more likely to protect marine resources if they were also able to make a livelihood from it.
Support for the Bill
While the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) supports fishing co-operatives and small fishing companies through its Fishing Cluster Project, Stevens said a number of other departments already supported the Bill and would, together with commercial fishing companies, provide resources and support for small-scale fishers.
Stevens' department also plans to help small-scale fishers to expand into the full fishing value-chain of not only harvesting, but also processing and marketing, by offering facilities and other resources to co-operatives.
Naseegh Jaffer, the director of the Masifundise Development Trust - a non-governmental organisation which works with small-scale fishing communities - said the Bill would also help unify fishing communities, encouraging them to work together rather than competing for individual fishing rights.
Since the adoption of the Allocation and Management of Long Term Fishing Rights in 2005, Masifundise Development Trust, along with other small-scale fishing groups, has campaigned to see the realisation of collective fishing rights for small-scale fishers.
Jaffer said the establishment of community-based legal entities would help provide small-scale fishers with better incomes. At present, many fishers have to loan money from middle-men to fund their fishing activities - only to have to repay them with up to 90% of the value of their catch.
In keeping with the policy, small-scale fishers are expected to be awarded the rights for near-shore fishing (within 10 nautical miles of the shore, according to Jaffer) in those areas designated by the minister.
Jaffer called on the department to work with fishers in local communities to ensure that genuine fishers were identified for participation in each community-based legal entity.
Fishers 'should know their rights'
The chairperson of South African United Fishing Front, Pedro Garcia, warned that many in fishing communities could find themselves exploited if they were not trained and prepared to work in a co-operative to take advantage of collective rights.
However, Garcia questioned whether the planned establishment of community-based legal entities was not unconstitutional, in that it might be in breach of freedom of association ascribed in the Bill of Rights.
Shaheen Moolla of natural resources advisory firm Feike said the co-operatives model had also proved problematic in the fishing industry, as many that operated in the past had reaped little income because many were not run by business-minded people.
Moolla raised concern that the granting of collective rights would result in an already dwindling fish stock divided among more fishers, which could in turn lead to increased poverty and poaching in fishing communities.
He pointed to Vietnam, which had in 2010 done away with collective fishing rights in response to dwindling fish stocks.
Some 2 200 small-scale fishers were already operating with individual rights or with exemptions from having to obtain rights, Moolla said.
However, he agreed with the small-scale fisher policy's call for a territorial user rights system, based on fishers having the rights to access fish stocks in the area in which they reside.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said the National Assembly's portfolio committee on agriculture, forestry and fisheries would hold public hearings on the Bill on 15 and 16 October.