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COVID-19 highlights vulnerability of small-scale fisheries
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COVID-19 highlights vulnerability of small-scale fisheries

More needs to be done to address issues facing small scale fisheries

SOUTH AFRICA: The impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the vulnerability of small-scale fishers as well as coastal communities; and researchers are urging government, the commercial sector and NGOs to investigate long-term contingency plans that will mitigate future risks that include the impact of climate change.

Speaking at a webinar yesterday to discuss these issues, Professor Moenieba Isaacs of the UWC Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies noted that, while small scale fishers faced drastic cuts in income and an inability to access markets, the industrial fishing sector was substantially more buffered due to their access to cold storage and more diverse logistics chains.

Having participated in a study to collect real-time data on the impacts of the pandemic on the functioning of food systems in Ghana, South Africa and Tanzania, Isaacs, noted key themes that include:

  • Food supply, demand, volumes, flow and prices
  • Changes in relations between food systems actors
  • Gender and generational dynamics
  • The impact of the political economy of governments, budgets and behaviour

With no contingency plan in place as the first hard lockdown was instituted, small scale fishers were directly impacted by the collapse of their international supply chains. In addition, local markets were more accessible to the commercial sector, which had access to extensive storage capacity as well as the ability to rent additional if required.

Further, the commercial sector bought up the oversupply of fish resulting in substantially lower prices being realised for their catches.

Much of what was highlighted by Isaacs was corroborated by Craig Smith of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). He did note, however, that certain coastal provinces were more resilient to the impact of the pandemic. The Northern Cape, for example, has been more formalised having been issued small scale fishing rights within the new dispensation in 2018. “They have far more structures in place,” he says.

The looming concern for these fishing communities, however, is the impact of climate change. “COVID-19 will look like child’s play compared to climate change,” he says urging stakeholders to take up the challenge to diversify the supply chain and strengthen the resilience of coastal communities and ecosystems.

Fisherman speaks out

Nicholas Taylor – also known as Oom Ka – from the Kleinmond fishing community provided the forum with some valuable input and insight of how the community had managed to survive 2020, but continues to feel the effects of the pandemic even now in April 2021.

The issuing of permits became, and still is, a major challenge for the small-scale fishers who have been significantly impacted by the lack of ability of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) to issue these timeously.

Oom Ka reported that with many of the staff working at home or off sick, the Department had delayed permit release. “It is not easy to find these people because they are working from home. In some cases, we have been waiting almost a month and a half for a permit and we can’t go out without a permit because we risk being fined,” he said adding that linefish permits have been delayed by three months.

Despite the lack of government capacity to issue permits, it was nevertheless emphasised that fisheries and safety inspectors are still operating to ensure no vessel enters the water without its permit.

Fishers are appealing to the Department to apply extensions to permits once issued as concern heightens that the end of certain fishing seasons are looming. They also highlight the lack of relevant research into the species that should be included in the small-scale basket. Oom Ka reports that Department researchers base their recommendations on studies that are done out of season and that do not necessarily reflect the reality of what is available for sustainable harvesting.

But even more importantly, he explains the uncertainty that the system of permit allocations creates for a household that relies on that permit. Currently permits are issued to individuals, but he contends that this should change. “If I get ill and die – then my permit goes away. I would like for it to be transferred to my wife and family who rely (on this allocation). If your household relies on a permit, if it goes away, there is nothing,” he explains.

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