The inland fishing communities of Mzansi are looking forward to the day they can legally make their living. They have welcomed cabinet’s recent approval of the draft National Freshwater (Inland) Wild-Capture Fisheries Policy as a first step towards decriminalising small-scale fishing from the country’s rivers and dams. They fear, however, that it might be another five years before policy becomes reality at a local level.
As an economic sector, small-scale freshwater fisheries have been overlooked for years – a fact acknowledged by environment, fisheries and forestry minister Barbara Creecy herself.
Fishing activities in South Africa are currently regulated by her department, and existing regulations only provide for recreational fishing. Inland fishing for business purposes is therefore largely an informal activity with no governance arrangements or room for stakeholder representation.
The new policy is set to change that and to guide the sustainable utilisation of freshwater fisheries going forward.
Potential for socio-economic benefits
The department of environment, forestry and fisheries’ communications director, Zolile Nqayi, says that inland fisheries are currently managed in terms of conservation and biodiversity objectives.
“Inland fisheries resources are not sufficiently recognised as a livelihood opportunity, source of food security or as a contributor to the economy.”
If the new policy is successfully implemented, it will balance the conservation of water resources with socio-economic benefit for surrounding communities. This will include job creation, the improvement of rural livelihoods, food security, the development of SMMEs and economic development based on the small-scale and recreational fishing value chains, Nqayi explains.
Pedro Garcia, chairperson of the South African United Fishing Front, tells Food For Mzansi that the approval of the draft policy is important because it can now become a mechanism to decriminalise many fisheries and fishing communities who access inland fisheries resources.
But he adds that while they are excited that the policy will enable the inland fisheries sector to contribute to food security, job creation and economic development, they have implementation concerns.
“Normally all our policies are well written and take everything into consideration. But we know how it goes: implementation seems to be our Achilles’ heel in South Africa.
“We are looking forward and want to see how serious government really is about bringing change.”
Activists have been lobbying for years
Small-scale fishers have expressed concerns that their fishing rights, traditional and customary fishing practices and contributions to rural livelihoods are not recognised by the government and other stakeholders.
The role of fishing in their livelihood strategies is diverse, ranging from a part-time activity for food security to a full-time commercial occupation. The fish are generally sold fresh or consumed by the family. But most small-scale fishers are impoverished.
A commitment to advancing the sector in South Africa has therefore been welcomed by the Masifundise Development Trust, an activists’ group that supports small-scale fishing communities in mobilising, lobbying and advocating for legal recognition and sustainable livelihoods.
Naseegh Jaffer, director for the trust, says that the organisation has been fighting for their voices to be heard in the development of the policy since 2017.
“We have continuously raised the issue for recognition for small-scale inland fishers with Minister Creecy, arguing that the sector has the potential to contribute to local development and food security in the rural areas.
“We hope that these words will be followed with sweep actions to ensure a just implementation of the policy.”
Implementation will take even more time
According to Garcia, there is still uncertainty around the legislative framework: will the new policy be encapsulated into the Marine Living Resources Act or will it need its own law, for instance?
“Once this is determined, we must also look at regulations that need to be written. We are also not sure whether this will be provincial or national.
“Our view is that … there are certain parts of the policy that requires a national competency level. I think operational issues can be devolved down to a provincial level, but these things will take time.”
In the meantime, fishing communities hope for speedy mechanisms to start decriminalising inland fishing for income purposes, whether it is through granting sports and recreational permits with conditions for communities and subsistence fishers to trade, or at a provincial level where access is granted to water bodies by the various governmental authorities,” Garcia says.
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