CRF Blog

Cross Currents

by Bill Hayes

In Cross Currents, National Geographic looks at the debate over how to sustain the rich fish environment around South Africa.

In South Africa abalone is a synonym for failure: of law enforcement, of fisheries management, and of the social contract that underpins sustainable use of the sea. Abalone is a collapsed fishery, and those who poach it are widely reviled as vultures enriching themselves from the last pickings of a dying resource.

But abalone is part of a wider marine tragedy. Stocks of a third of South Africa’s commercially and recreationally caught inshore fish (called linefish, as they are caught primarily with lines) have crashed. In 2000 the government declared a state of emergency and slashed the number of commercial fishing licenses. Yet many stocks remain at perilously low levels — dead fish swimming. Commercial fishing of 40 traditionally important linefish species is prohibited. Even the national fish, a one-foot-long mussel cruncher known as the galjoen, is banned.

In fish-loving, fishing-mad South Africa, the anguish of declining catches and vanishing species is acute. But if there’s a crisis of fish, there’s also a crisis of fishing. Half of South Africa’s subsistence fishing communities are described as food insecure, because the foundation of their livelihood is in jeopardy. Yet in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected president of newly democratic South Africa, his African National Congress party saw fish as a social equalizer and an uplifter of the impoverished. The rainbow nation would offer its marine resources as an egalitarian pot of gold for all.

Initially the prospects for social transformation looked good. Thousands of “historically disadvantaged individuals” — black and coloured (the accepted word in South Africa for people of predominantly European-African descent) — obtained fishing rights. By 2004 more than 60 percent of the commercial fishing quota was in the hands of this group, compared with less than one percent ten years earlier.

But as the linefish emergency showed, the government had invited more guests to the buffet than there was food to feed them. [more]