Signs of hope for SA’s linefish
By John Duncan – Senior Manager WWF-SA Marine Programme

Rock surf Anglers PHOTO: Peter Chadwick

In the sea of unending stories of despair around fisheries collapse and increasing poverty in coastal communities, the recent news that for the first time in over a decade, some of our critically over-exploited linefish species are starting to show signs of recovery shines through as a beacon of hope.

Although the local linefishery may not be a significant revenue earner in terms of direct earnings compared to the hake trawl fishery, it is a very important fishery, both culturally and economically. The recent news that some of the commercially important linefish species such as kob and carpenter have started to show signs of recovery will no doubt be welcomed by many, including the estimated 130 000 people around South Africa who generate some form of livelihood from the fishery.

However, before every man and his dog reaches for his fishing rod, it is important to understand what the science is telling us. The good news is that these stocks appear to be increasing; however, the bad news is that these stocks are still well below the optimal harvesting level commonly known as maximum sustainable yield (MSY). In simplified medical terms, these stocks are still not well enough to leave the hospital but they are at least no longer in the intensive care unit.

Fishermen's 4x4's on the beach PHOTO: Peter Chadwick

While these findings represent a cautiously positive story for fishers, the initial indications of linefish stocks rebuilding tell a much more important story, one that is perhaps harder to hear but that our current fishers and managers would do well to take note of; Twelve years ago the Department declared a state of emergency in the traditional linefishery. The best available science indicated that many of our commercially important linefish stocks had been depleted to less than 15% of their pristine levels and would soon be remembered only from the black and white trophy photographs found hanging in your local pub.

In the face of this crisis, the Department needed to make some difficult and often unpopular decisions, one of which was to cut the number of licenses in the fishery by more than 70%. Towards the end of 2001, further steps were then taken with the implementation of the highly contentious beach-driving ban which resulted in many previously-fished areas becoming de facto reserves as most fishers were no longer able to access them. At the time, the Department was heavily criticized for these decisions and faced a number of challenges, legal and otherwise from the public and affected fishers. However, to its credit, the Department stood firm on these decisions, which is why today, more than a decade later, we are starting to see some of these linefish populations starting to rebound. Although it is difficult to quantify the impact of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) at such large scales, it is almost certain that the creation of these refuge areas for many key linefish species, has also played a role in effecting this recovery.

In a world where we are increasingly faced with stories of fisheries collapse and the resultant poverty and hunger which follows in the wake of overfishing, these signs of recovery are indeed heartening. Critically, they highlight the importance of having robust scientific information upon which to base management decisions and being brave enough to implement them in the face of the political challenges that will inevitably follow.

This is all the more important given the impending implementation of the government’s new small-scale fisheries policy which will govern the management of many important inshore resources such as rock-lobsters, abalone and most linefish species. This much-anticipated policy, which has been in development for over 6 years, represents a sea-change in the government’s approach to the management of small-scale fisheries. The policy, which will effectively see coastal communities becoming increasingly empowered to manage their local marine resources themselves, presents a number of novel opportunities for the development of this historically marginalized fishing sector, however, there are also a number of risks in the policy’s approach and as always, the devil is in the details…

Red Stumpnose juvenile in kelp forest PHOTO: Peter Chadwick

Much has changed over the last decade, not all for the worse.  South Africa has a very proud tradition of fisheries management dating back over a hundred years to the appointment of the government’s first fisheries scientist in 1907. South Africa was also the first African country to declare an MPA (Tsitsikamma), which is now almost half a century old.

Safeguarding our marine resources and the science-based approach to their management is a critical piece of the puzzle in ensuring that South Africa continues to enjoy healthy marine ecosystems. In implementing the drastic measures it did in the linefishery twelve years ago, our government showed that it was willing to make hard decisions, difficult as they were at the time, in order to prioritize the long-term survival of our marine ecosystems and the fishers that depend on them.

With the implementation of the new small-scale fisheries policy and in the face of growing threats of mining in the marine environment, the government will once again face some difficult decisions. It is our hope that in making these decisions, the Department will not allow good science to be trumped by politics, because while our politicians may serve us for only five years, if well looked after, our marine ecosystems will continue to provide a source of food and livelihood to society indefinitely.