Something fishy about Minister Creecy approaching the High Court

For many years, poor coastal and inland fishing communities have warned of signs, allegedly perpetuated by some scientists and government officials, seeking to drive a wedge between subsistence fishers and the small-scale fishers.  

On 19 February, the department of environment, forestry and fisheries (DEFF) announced it was seeking to approach the High Court for it to review and set aside the process of awarding small-scale fishing rights in the Western Cape. 

Speaking on Power FM shortly after the DEFF media statement release, Minister Barbara Creecy claimed some fishing rights awarded to small scale fishers in the Western Cape were deemed irregular, according to an internal legal advice. 

DEFF further said that the Minister would ask the Court to “order that whatever form of access to fish communities and individual fishers have, will remain in place until the new verification process is completed”. 

According to a frustrated fishing community activist who wished to remain anonymous, the rationale for approaching the High Court was still unclear as it was DEFF’s own verification system that continued to fail small scale fishers, due to its complexity and biasness towards commercial fisheries. 

According to DEFF internal audit process, errors in the system such as the inaccurate capturing of information and the incorrect adjudication of applications by community panels were identified in the system. 

There was inconsistent application of criteria between communities, an incorrect and incoherent application and appeals process as well as incomplete and inaccurate data, including lost applications.

The activist said DEFF should not be apportioning blame to all and sundry in the small-scale fisheries, as they had “created this mess themselves in the first place”.

“Minister Creecy can spin this it all she wants but we know there are countless attempts to block fishing communities from accessing what is their God given right – the seas and all that is underneath it. In 2007, the Equality Court was clear and set a precedent in KZN when it ordered the then Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Martinus van Schalk Wyk to ‘develop a new policy that would accommodate the socio-economic rights of traditional, artisanal fishers and ensure equitable access to marine resources for those fishers’ in KZN. We know where this is going and we will challenge it,” said the activist. 

Of the 90% line-fish caught along the shores of the Western Cape, it was found that small scale fishers from Lambert’s Bay contributed substantially. The latest bid by the Minister is feared that it will affect all scale fishers in the coastal lines, while commercial fisheries go about life as normal. 

DEFF however rebuffed this assertion and said the current fishing rights will remain unaltered until a new verification process system takes shape. 

“Numerous steps will be taken by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to minimise the impact of the court application on fishing communities in the province. These include bringing the application as quickly as possible, prioritising the new verification process and conducting it as swiftly as possible. These steps are aimed at shortening the period of impact. Importantly, the court application will request to maintain the current dispensation of providing access to fishing by fishing communities,” said DEFF. 

The department was thin explaining the steps to be taken including the allotted time frames.

According to the activist, Minister Creecy’s department has on several platforms failed to provide progress on the agreed 2012 Small-Scale Fishers Policy which cost the taxpayers R424 million. 

“This policy has been a disaster. Initially, it aimed to integrate small-scale fishers to the fisheries value chain but the department has since gone quiet on it. Instead, Minister Creecy is promoting some ideas from scientists and government officials that some in our communities were not small-scale fishers but subsistence fishers who are just mere recreational fishermen and anglers,” said the activist. 

She allegedly said this in 2020 when she addressed the KZN Subsistence Fishing Forum, which according to the Marine Living Resources Act (MLRA) definition would disqualify such types of fishers from catching fish. 

DEFF said all Western Cape fishing communities will be affected by the court’s decision but was not forthcoming if it included commercial fishing companies. 

“Should the court application be successful, originally registered individuals will have an opportunity to submit new information to support their original applications and thus ensure a process that is applied fairly and consistently to all communities.”

With approximately 22 600 small scale fishers in South Africa, only 11 000 were declared small scale fishers and trained to apply for fishing rights according to DEFF when it reported to the portfolio committee on environment, forestry and fisheries three months ago. 

“Look at their own figures to really see this is a mess. Western Cape declared small scale farmers were mere 2700 out of a possible 11 000 small scale fisheries. Yet, we bring most snoek catches in the country, which generates high income and we are still given quotas. Isn’t this an economic hit on our small-scale fisheries communities? Yet your untouchable commercial fishers, they are not restricted in number and volumes for their catch,” said the activist. 

The statement issued by DEFF was mired in contradictions, as its first part claimed there will be no casualties whereas the last part mischievously delivered a threat that “approaching the court will cause a delay of at least another year in the granting of rights for some communities”.

But the Minister believes that the consequences of not approaching the court are potentially even more disastrous. 

“While the delay could take up to a year, how many possible livelihoods would have been affected by this political irresponsible decision,” said the activist. 

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