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For South Africa’s small fishers, co-ops prove a necessary, but bumpy, step up

Christian Adams and Anthony Stofberg with their crew in a fishing boat.

Christian Adams and Anthony Stofberg with another member of their crew in a fishing boat. Image by Jackie Sunde.

  • Sixteen years after small-scale fishers in South Africa were promised legal recognition and fishing rights, the policy regulating the new sector is at last being implemented.
  • As fishing communities draw closer to finally claiming equal rights in a fishing industry that has been dominated by the commercial sector, they are currently forming cooperatives to access collective fishing rights and co-manage local marine resources.
  • The rollout of the new policy has been long and bumpy, with many issues still to be resolved, and long-time fishers complaining they’ve been excluded.
  • Even so, hope remains that cooperatives can hold new opportunities for income generation and equity building.

STEENBERG’S COVE, South Africa — For more than 40 years, the sea has been Anthony Stofberg’s livelihood. Stofberg, 62, is a fisherman, just like his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, who used to go out into the waters in front of their home and harvest seafood. Species like snoek, Cape bream and west coast rock lobster secured both their income and their food.

And yet, Stofberg is not legally considered a fisher by South African authorities. In its process of rolling out the country’s new small-scale fishing (SSF) policy, 11 years after it was finalized, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) declared his application to be recognized as a small-scale fisherman “unsuccessful.” Stofberg is currently awaiting the outcome of the appeal he lodged in March.

For now, he will remain excluded from joining his “successful” colleagues in Steenberg’s Cove and the rest of Western Cape province, as they form and register fishing cooperatives, the community-based legal entities that will allow them to access collective fishing rights promised under the new policy.

“The system doesn’t work,” Stofberg told Mongabay on a wet and cloudy winter day that prevented him and his fellow fishers from going to sea. “How can someone who has been fishing all his life not be a fisher?” Rains and stormy winds were washing over St. Helena Bay, home to five communities, including Steenberg’s Cove, and more than 50 small-scale fishers.

“We have a team of 10, 12 guys here who weren’t successful, even though they are deriving their full income from fishing,” said Christian Adams, who works with Stofberg and chairs the nascent SSF cooperative in Steenberg’s Cove. Adams has been involved in the fight for their recognition for more than 20 years and helped formulate the new policy.

Against a backdrop of severe overfishing and shrinking quotas, small-scale fishers are finally gaining legal recognition as equal stakeholders in the country’s fishing industry. The rollout of the SSF policy, however, has been long and bumpy, especially in the Western Cape. Many issues have yet to be resolved, and fishers are wondering how much change the new framework will really bring.

(Left) Langebaan small-scale fisheries leader Norton Dowries and (right) Anthony Stofberg.
Norton Dowries (left) and Anthony Stofberg (right), small-scale fishers from Western Cape province. Image by Jackie Sunde.

After centuries of marginalization, a paradigm shift

Until 2007, small-scale fishers did not exist under South African law. Centuries of systemic dispossession and marginalization dating back to colonial times were continued by the racist laws of the apartheid government. The first post-apartheid law regulating the sector, the Marine Living Resources Act (MLRA) of 1998, changed little for fishers like Adams and Stofberg. The MLRA mentioned commercial, recreational and subsistence fishers who fish to feed themselves. But it excluded those who catch fish and sell it in small quantities to sustain their livelihoods.

The fisheries were managed through so-called individual transferable quotas (ITQs). Originally, this system was supposed to open market access for previously disadvantaged people. But most fishing rights were allocated to the commercial sector. Few artisanal fishers were granted rights, and their quotas were low.

“For many years we weren’t part of the lawful structure; we were never recognized as small-scale fishers, or as fishers as such, and were not allowed to fish,” Adams said.

He was one of 5,000 fishers who challenged the MLRA through a class-action lawsuit in 2005. In 2007, the South African Equality Court, which handles unfair-discrimination cases, ordered the fisheries minister to develop an SSF policy through a participatory approach.

Until then, the post-apartheid government’s attention had focused on the commercial sector, which according to official figures generated 6.6 billion rand ($345 million) in 2019 and employed almost 20,000 people.

But tension between fishing sectors has not eased over the years, as the largest portions of quotas still go to the offshore commercial sector. South African waters are severely overfished, with some species, above all the west coast rock lobster, close to depletion. Climate change has only compounded the pressure on fish stocks. Catches of small pelagic fish, key to marine food webs and reserved for the commercial sector, declined from 600,000 metric tons in 1987 to less than 200,000 in 2019. Meanwhile fishers, commercial and artisanal alike, are increasingly competing for space with the oil and gas industry, marine transport and marine protected areas.

Christian Adams in front of the court with lawyer Wilmien Wicomb.
Christian Adams and lawyer Wilmien Wicomb in front of Western Cape High Court in Cape Town in 2022, when the court sided with fishing communities who challenged marine oil and gas prospecting. Image by Jackie Sunde.

Due to the informal nature of small-scale fisheries, catch data aren’t specific. Many people from the 147 fishing communities along the country’s 3,000-kilometer (nearly 1,900-mile) coastline turn to the sea only at certain times of year due to the migratory nature of the fish they catch. While commercial offshore boats can be as long as 50 meters (164 feet) and deploy heavy gear, the country’s estimated 30,000 artisanal fishers typically use small boats and low-impact traditional gear like lines and hoop nets.

Finalized in 2012 and gazetted in 2014, the SSF policy promised to recognize these fishers and give them equitable access to marine resources through collective quotas.

But first, fishers had to organize themselves in geographically based cooperatives. They propose the species they want to catch to DFFE and, when granted, distribute the quotas among their members. Run as small businesses, co-ops do much more than catch fish: they manage their own finances, market and sell the fish, and find other ways of deriving income along the value chain. A fisherman who goes to sea can be as much part of the cooperative’s workforce as a woman who weaves hoop nets for the lobster fishers, or an admin person.

Once established, according to the policy, co-ops will co-manage with DFFE the near-shore marine resources in their area, taking an active role in setting quotas and fishing seasons.

“What was asked for [in the policy] was a community-based system where the fishers would become the custodians of the resources in our bay or along our coast, and all the fishers would get something which they can make a go of,” Jackie Sunde, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, told Mongabay.

Small-scale fishing boats in Saldanha Bay in Western Cape province. Image by Victoria Schneider for Mongabay.

Policy vs. implementation: From bottom-up to top-down

Sunde, who is part of the One Ocean Hub Small-scale Fisheries Project, an international ocean research program, has been involved in the policy development process since the beginning, when she worked for the Masifundise Development Trust, an organization advocating for fishing communities’ rights.

She said the bottom-up approach during the formulation of the policy, which was participatory and allowed communities input on the final wording, was inverted during the formulation of the policy’s regulations, to the detriment of artisanal fishers. These regulations were formally adopted in 2016 after an amendment of the MLRA to include small-scale fishers.

“A top-down, state-driven approach with inadequate collaboration of fishers and stakeholders,” concluded an analysis of the SSF policy rollout that Sunde co-authored in 2021. The analysis found that the government-led practical implementation deviated on various points from the policy, including in the choice of legal entity communities can form to access rights, the concept of co-management, and the criteria defining who is a fisher.

According to Sunde, the discrepancy resulted in thousands of fishers finding themselves again outside of the system, both in the Western Cape, where the SSF policy’s rollout is still in progress after the fisher-verification process was challenged in court and had to be redone, and in South Africa’s three other coastal provinces, where it has already concluded to mixed reviews.

However, the second round of verifications in the Western Cape has again left hundreds of fishers out, among them Stofberg and his colleagues. According to the fishers Mongabay spoke to, there were instead plenty of “successful” non-fishers.

Peter Mbelengwa, DFFE’s communications chief, responded to Mongabay’s questions in an emailed statement, writing that the minister is currently processing 400 appeals by Western Cape fishers wanting to be recognized: “The Department had a very positive outcome for the 2022/23 Recognition of Small-Scale Fishers in Western Cape as about 85% of those who applied to be recognised as small-scale fishers were successful.”

Mbelengwa did not indicate when the appeal process would conclude.

The department is expected to allocate quotas by the mid-November start of the fishing season for west coast rock lobster, one of the most lucrative species for small-scale fishers but also one of the most depleted. Co-ops in the Western Cape are still waiting in anticipation to hear what species they will be allowed to fish, and whether the allocated quotas will be enough.

High levels of uncertainty rule the final months of the rollout, as many SSF policy components remain to be put into practice, even in the other three provinces where the rollout has concluded. Concrete plans to implement co-management and designate exclusive small-scale fishing zones to ease some of the tension between the commercial and artisanal sectors have yet to be made.

Solene Smith, a fisherwoman, at home in Langebaan, Western Cape province. Image by Victoria Schneider for Mongabay.

Co-ops: Room for improvement?

And still, hope remains that artisanal fishers’ situation will improve with the new system.

“We have come far,” Solene Smith, a fisherwoman from Langebaan, about an hour’s drive south of St. Helena Bay, told Mongabay. “Now that the cooperatives are here we need to come together and push for a co-management structure so we can decide what we need.”

Smith represents fishers in stakeholder meetings as chair of Coastal Links Langebaan, a branch of a national fishers’ grassroots movement. She’s also a member of the Langebaan co-op now being formed. Even though the implementation of the SSF policy isn’t exactly what fishers had in mind 16 years ago, Smith said cooperatives hold many opportunities for communities — as long as they can find ways to diversify their work.

“We cannot trust the government — maybe next year they’ll tell us that a certain species is on the red list, and we cannot rely on that. We must think outside the box,” she said.

Creating channels of income beyond going to sea will be crucial for a co-op to succeed. “We have a lot of ideas for businesses,” said Smith who, together with some other women from Langebaan, has already started making products like rollmops (pickled herring), atchars (pickle condiments) and pickled mussels, which they sell to local distributor ABALOBI. In the future, activities like this could be managed through the co-op.

“Some go to sea and fish, others are going to do other things,” she said. Only then can it work, even when quotas are low.

Langebaan net fishers show their catch.
Small-scale net fishers in Langebaan show their catch. Image by Jackie Sunde.

Banner image: Christian Adams and Anthony Stofberg with another member of their crew in a fishing boat. Image by Jackie Sunde.

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