Experts say the government is ignoring science and dragging its feet in the face of a crisis.
According to scientists and marine conservationists, overfishing is threatening shark species along South Africa’s coastline. They say if bold steps are not taken to tighten demersal shark longlining (DSL) regulations, some species will disappear completely, ultimately leading to the collapse of the shark-watching industry, an important revenue earner for SA tourism and marine conservation.
Scientific recommendations compiled by national fisheries scientists in 2011 highlighted that slot (size) limits were urgently needed to protect shark species, which are being unsustainably harvested. Yet, despite these recommendations being gazetted in 2018, they have still not been implemented.
Furthermore, the Department of Environment, Forestry & Fisheries (DEFF), says a more recent assessment for soupfin and smoothhound sharks confirmed there is a “99 percent probability that soupfin is fished unsustainably” and for smoothhound sharks “the stock is fished at unsustainable levels”.
35,000 caught by 2 or 3 boats
But with no catch or size limits enforced, DSL fishery continues to target soupfin and smoothhound sharks by their thousands for export to Australia’s “flake and chips” markets. Not only is this affecting the survival of these species, but it is also having a noticeable effect on great white sharks, who rely on small sharks as a vital food source.
World-renowned white shark expert Chris Fallows says: “Up to 35,000 of just one species are being caught by two or three boats along our coastline.”
Fallows confirms that white shark numbers have plummeted in False Bay since 2015 when the DSL boats began fishing the area in earnest. “You simply cannot overfish one species and not expect it to have a knock-on effect elsewhere.”
Shark activity in False Bay and Gansbaai attracts nearly 100,000 tourists annually. With an estimated contribution to GDP of R1bn, the loss of great whites could affect hundreds of livelihoods, as well as shark conservation efforts.
“Shark tourism has many added benefits for employment, conservation and community, and the whole tourism value chain from accommodation, restaurants, transport and more,” says Wilfred Chivell of Marine Dynamics in Gansbaai. “Furthermore, these eyes on the sea are critical to the understanding of marine species behaviour and influence conservation policies.”
sharks draw 100,000 tourists and R1 billion
In contrast, DSL fishery, made up of six boats, of which three are active, is estimated to generate R15m annually, employing about 250 people. These boats operate from Algoa to False Bay.
The department says the delay in actively regulating DSL fishing is due to a previous split mandate in departments. But it says changes are in the pipeline.
Conservationists say the delay is inexcusable. They say it is the department’s own scientists who identified the “inadequate regulatory reference to sharks” as one of the main hindrances and who claimed there was no progress “due to attrition of staff within DAFF, lack of assessments and scarcity of skilled resource managers”.
According to Sue Middleton, acting deputy director-general for fisheries management, quota and size limits, as well as mandatory observers, will be in place by the end of May.
But forestry, fisheries & environmental affairs minister Barbara Creecy also says a socio-economic impact assessment system (SEIAS) needs to be conducted before limitations can be set.
Marine biologists say there is not enough time for an impact assessment and immediate implementation of the scientific recommendations should first be rolled out.
Regarding quota allowances, the department says limitations are managed through a total allowable effort (TAE) system. “Shark fisheries are managed in terms of restriction on the amount of fishing effort that is allowed to be put in, rather than in terms of quotas that may be taken out.”
But scientists say without mandatory observers on the boats, a TAE system is ineffective fishery management, and, in some years, single vessels have exceeded the entire fishery quota.
“When you have data clearly showing that since 2017, six boats have caught more than double the scientifically recommended quota … capping the number of vessels is not enough,” says Fallows.
The department further states fishing permit renewals have been extended until December 2021, which is when the stock status and TAE will be considered.
“We cannot wait to end 2021 for permit renewals. By then the white sharks will be below the threshold to recover,” says environmental scientist at Algoa Bay Conservation Ronelle Friend.
In the meantime, eyewitnesses say the DSL vessels continue to flout fishing laws. One of the boats, White Rose, has been prosecuted for fishing in the De Hoop Marine Protected Area. Yet, despite a pending court case, it remains in operation.
Reports of catching and slaughtering protected white shark and hammerhead species have also been recorded.
The solution, say marine conservationists, lies in relocating the DSL permit holders to another sector such as the pelagic longline fishery. With each DSL boat owner possessing multiple permits, they say these boats could focus on less vulnerable fish species.
This article by Melissa Reitz was first published in Conservation Action Trust.