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The State of Small-scale Fisheries in South Africa

by Professor Moenieba Isaacs in 2018

On 19 April 2018, the University of Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) and Masifundise Development Trust hosted a round table discussion to unpack the state of small-scale fisheries in South Africa. Over 60 participants from civil society, academics, community reps, students, legal practitioners, all made up for a very interesting presentations and discussions. Key speakers included, Andy Johnston (activist), Wilmien Wicomb (Legal Resource Centre), Prof Merle Sowman (University of Cape Town), Gary Simpson (the Collective) Sindisa Sigam (WWF), Mark Botha (UWC), Joseph Ginindza (PhD student, UWC), and Naseegh Jaffer (Masifundise).

The meeting started with a reflection on the progress we have made in the last 14 years with the launch of the class action case in the Equality Court case – Kenneth George and Others against the ITQ system of allocation, the need to recognise the food security and livelihoods activities of small-scale fishers, the link to their communities, the importance of women in the pre and post-harvest sectors, a basket of rights in the allocation plan, the importance of customary tenure systems, working towards a true co-management and stewardship of marine resources and the rights would be allocated to active fishers in a legal entity that suits the needs of the community ‘not one size fits all’.

With a new Small-scale Fisheries Policy (2012) amendment to the MLRA in 2014, significant progressed had been made to understanding the small-scale sector. The Small-scale Fisheries Policy also fed into the FAO Voluntary Guidelines for small-scale fisheries (2014). Then came the fisheries regulations, a missed opportunity on the side of DAFF to ‘radically transform this sector’ and ensure food security and sustainable livelihoods with value chains that benefit fishers and communities directly, not the marketers and the industry. DAFF then embarked on a technical, bureaucratic and strict system to indirectly exclude many fishers and created a space for elite capture to take place. Critical issues for the discussion included: the ITQ system (via Interim Relief) or collective rights, how we interpret the market, and what is the structure and nature of organisations.

Fisheries activist, Andy Johnston began with the current state of the fishing communities and the lack of morality and honesty. There seem to be no concern for poorer people of whom many are involved in crime and poaching. In the past fishing was not regarded as an activity of choice and their efforts were not valued in communities. Now everyone wants to be part of the fishing industry because of the high value of the commodity and every year the list of small-scale fishers gets longer and longer.

“Fishing communities are in a crisis and the state of resources such as lobster and abalone are at the point of collapse and this is mainly due to poaching“, he said.

Structural poverty and inequality is at the main issue. Prof Sowman supported Andy’s Johnston’s assessment on the state of fishing communities in relation to poverty, crime, debt to marketers, and pressure on the marine resources made worse by Interim Relief.

Wilmien Wicomb from Legal Resource Centre took the crisis narrative further and placed it at the door of DAFF. “We are facing a crisis in small-scale fisheries, the universe DAFF is living in is not the universe small-scale fishers are living in,” she said, adding that it is two completely different worlds from the equality and human rights issues rooted in the Small-scale Fisheries Policy to what DAFF is implementing. There is also no reference to the Small-scale Fisheries Policy in the implementation plan only the MLRA and Regulations. “How can the two worlds meet? What needs to be in place?”

Naseegh Jaffer responded to the universe metaphor by saying there is also a “Third universe” – the private sector fishing companies that continues to fight to keep their privilege and policy. After the Equality Court case (Kenneth George and Others), industry took Masifundise Development Trust and the government to court. The fourth universe is the environmentalist protecting the environment to the point that people are pushed away. “This is why the small-scale fishers are in need of environmental justice,” he said.

Gary Simpson, representing the Collective questioned why DAFF is taking 10 years to allocate rights to small-scale fisheries. He called for the removal of the top leadership of DAFF. He said the Collective wanted all the West Coast Rock Lobster TAC to be allocated to small-scale fisheries. In his opinion fishers should drive the marketing of small-scale fisheries especially the Chinese market – where West Coast Rock Lobster is selling between 100-300 USD.

This was supported by Mark Botha from UWC who also called for the small-scale fisher group to start re-organising around a Special Purpose Vehicle to support the value chains to assist small-scale fisheries with marketing West Coast Rock Lobster to the Far East.

Communal vs individual

Naseegh Jaffer, Joseph Ginindza and Prof Sowman unpacked the definition of small-scale fisheries as a livelihood practice activity that is communal in nature and not individual. Small-scale fishing is a community activity not an individual activity, women and youth are involved, families and neighbours are involved. They reminded us of the Kenneth George and Others challenge against the privatisation of rights and how this system created broken families and communities.

Key to understanding the nature of fishing communities is the importance of customary activities and the inalienability (in perpetuity) of the fishing rights. Failure to recognise and incorporate customary tenure systems is a huge missed opportunity to keep the fishers as the custodian of the resources. These practices are protected by our Constitution, Bill of Rights, FAO Voluntary Guidelines on Small-scale fisheries, and FAO Tenure Guidelines. However in reality the established industry is refusing to give up their rights as “90% of fish nearshore that will be allocated to small-scale fishers is the 90% of what it has not been allocated to the industry already?”

Will what is in the basket be enough to sustain livelihoods?

Wilmien Wicomb stressed the importance of a “radical shift from individual rights to collective rights.”

She asked: “Why are we adopting a co-operative model that works well in Japan?

Why is DAFF reinventing the notion of community to be 20 people, clustering the different communities.

Why is DAFF not looking at the definition in the Small-scale Fisheries Policy where it refers to a coherent community structure with fishers that know and trust each other?

“The community entity in the Small-scale Fisheries Policy should be what DAFF implements. The criteria in the regulations gives this sector a 10 year exit strategy and not in perpetuity – does this means that the small-scale fisheries sector will die in 10 years time?


Prof Merle Sowman also raised her concerns around the significant deviation from the core values and principles of the preferential access of the small-scale sector, co-management small-scale policy to the regulations and the implementation plan.

Key shifts are in the individual approach to verification and registration of fishers and this resulted in many conflicts mainly due to the unintended consequence of the Interim Relief permits, how the value chain was captured by the marketers and the industry, how it split fisher organisations (Coastal Links and Masifundise), and that little to no attention given to organising fishers at the local community level during this time.

Clearly, Interim Relief is situated in the ITQ system and the community moral decay, conflicts, and elite capturing of problematic registration and verification processes. The process was cumbersome, strict, technical and bureaucratic and this system excluded many fishers, again. The appeals process was even more difficult and no space was given for late registration – the case of the fisherwoman, Fatiema “Poppie” Kok, is a case in point where the system excluded her due to a technicality.

Co management

The notion of co-management was also a common theme with the presenters and Wilmien Wicomb and Prof Merle Sowman all arguing about DAFF’s paternalistic relationship with the cooperative system and not allowing the agency of the fishers to constitute their structure, make decisions on their own, or be interested in co-managing resources as real partners.

There is no link between the cooperative and co-management, yet the principle of co-management is a fundamental part of the Small-scale Fisheries Policy.

WWF’s Sindisa Sagam, presented how they view co-management in the number of small-scale fisheries projects underway in the Koggelberg region, linking small-scale fishers on the boat with scientists.

The question remains – how will small-scale fishers be part of the management of the fisheries?

Way forward:

Key points from the presentation and the discussion were summarised as follows:

Revisit the principles of the policy and bring them back into the conversation. We must be willing to challenge bad decisions made by DAFF.
Unity in the small-scale sector is a key concern to Gary Simpson.
Prof Merle Sowman said the solution is to rebuild stronger fishing movements.
Joseph Ginindza wants to see strengthening of unity and voice among fishers and fishers’ organizations, and
Naseegh Jaffer says a common vision for small-scale fisheries is what we should strive for.
* This article was written by Prof Moenieba Isaacs, (
*Article from Fishing Industry News & Aquaculture