Marine Living Resources on the West Coast.
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  • November 12, 2008
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Marine Living Resources on the West Coast.

Before 1994, there was no formal space for poor fishers to access marine resources, so they used recreational permits to fish in open access areas. The fisheries sector has been industrialised since the early 1900s and resources are fully utilised, which means reallocation of fishing access rights are contested.

The ANC came to power on the election promises it made in the Reconstruction and Development Programme. This document was an integrated, coherent socioeconomic framework for dealing with the consequences of apartheid, including the alleviation of poverty and addressing the lack of services for the poor majority.

Among others, it sought to uplift impoverished coastal communities through ensuring that they could gain access to marine resources.Marine resources must be managed and controlled for the benefit of all South Africans, especially those communities whose livelihood depends on resources from the sea.

The democratic government must assist people to have access to these resources. Legislative measures must be introduced to establish democratic structures for the management of sea resources.

The new government set itself the task of formulating a fisheries policy that would address popular expectations for a more equitable redistribution of access rights, while maintaining an internationally competitive fishing industry.

To what extent has the government succeeded in restructuring access to marine resources to alleviate poverty and reduce the vulnerability of poor fishing communities?

Vested business interests succeeded in convincing the government that, in order to safeguard the prospects for international investment, there should be no deviation from free market principles.

Two years into democracy, the post-apartheid reform agenda had become a neo-liberal one which included privatisation, the removal of government subsidies, downsizing the public sector, and the encouragement of small black enterprise.

Although government programmes were intended to achieve both economic growth and equity, these efforts did not create jobs for the poor and unemployed.

The new government overlooked the progressive intentions in the RDP in favour of neo-liberal policy prescriptions. Fisheries policy was formalised in 1998 with the passing of the Marine Living Resources Act (MLRA). This law failed to address the social and economic challenges facing poor communities, especially with respect to maintaining their livelihoods. Under the MLRA, Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) fishing rights were allocated to individual small-scale fishers.

Improved access rights under the fisheries reform were intended to alleviate poverty by making wealth- generation activities possible.

The result was that this new action space was soon captured by the elite in the community (teachers, artisans, shop owners, local councillors) rather than those they were intended to benefit – the fishers in the community. The fishers, with limited literacy and numeracy skills, were unable to comply with the application requirements.

New entrants and established companies were mainly active in the formal space, and marginalised poor fishers in the informal action space.

The formal action space is occupied by those who were successful in obtaining fishing rights and the informal action space is occupied by those who were left out.

The community elite mainly used their political capital together with their social capital to access rights. However, it was not at all easy for the community elite to establish their small companies in this sector.

They found it difficult to survive without forming agreements with the established industries. The economic viability of the quota allocation, the lack of technical and management skills, the lack of start-up or investment capital, and the monopolistic business systems of the established companies continued to maintain their competitive advantage over the new entrants.

New entrants entered into joint venture agreements to harvest, process and market. Most of the SMMEs became more vulnerable as they started to feel the cumulative pressures of the lack of infrastructure to harvest, process and market their fishing rights, the business acumen needed to manage the quota, and the start-up capital to acquire the necessary equipment.

The informal action space was occupied mainly by marginalised groups and fishers who were constrained by social disadvantages, lack of assets, limited communication skills, and low numeracy and literacy skills from successfully gaining access to fishing rights.

Some of these groups showed their discontent with the formal rights allocation process by forming an alliance (the Artisanal Fishers Association and Masifundise) with assistance from the Legal Resource Centre and embarked upon litigation against the formal rights process.

The court case has been a mechanism for the poor to show their discontent in the public arena and this has provided leverage for a settlement agreement which has seen the rewriting of small-scale fisheries policy through a representative task team of community representatives of all coastal provinces.

The state’s commitment also extends to restoring the principles and practices of community management and to formalise the position of fishers left outside the formal system between 1994 and 2007.

This commitment was conveyed to fisher representatives along the coast at a small-scale fishing summit organised by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in November last year.

The challenge is how to merge the ITQ system with a collective rights system which can succeed in alleviating poverty in coastal communities. To promote sustainable livelihoods and community-based systems, the rules of exclusion and substractibility (self-governance) are to be applied.

The community should be able to set rules about who should be able to participate in harvesting the benefits of the resource (exclusion). There is a lack of experience of self-governance systems, a lack of infrastructure to harvest, market and process, and a lack of community organisation to manage such a system.

The action spaces created by governance reforms attempted different initiatives to allocate fishing rights to address coastal poverty. The first was from the apartheid regime – community quotas and the formation of fishing community trusts.

This system was unsuitable as it was a top-down initiative, communities were not actively engaging in harvesting or economic opportunities to reduce poverty, there was elite capture, and there was no support from the state on how to manage and distribute the funds generated.

The second attempt was through formal allocation rights in which groups had to form small enterprises and companies to apply for fishing rights. They had to fill in the same forms as established companies and of the many new small companies formed along the West Coast, few were successful.

The third attempt was through piloting subsistence permits where Marine and Coastal Management promoted the creation of subsistence committees and permits were distributed.

The following year the committees dissolved from small enterprises to apply for medium rights allocation. The groups and individuals who were not incorporated in the medium and long-term allocations were accommodated through interim relief measures for lobster and line fish.

Although the action space created new opportunities for coastal communities to access rights, in reality it failed to improve livelihoods and reduce vulnerability.

Although governance reform processes created an action space for fishers to access fishing rights, the space was soon captured by the community elite and established industry players at the expense of vulnerable groups along the West Coast.

Poor fishing communities are dependent on decent jobs, but in reality there has been a loss of jobs, and a loss of security as those who are lucky enough to find employment are increasingly employed on a temporary or seasonal basis.

Those with jobs could generally avoid falling deeper into poverty. The survivalist nature of the operations of many small rights holders has meant increased vulnerability to entering into catching, processing and marketing agreements with established companies in exchange for small monthly payments.

These payments have reduced household poverty to a certain extent, but it seems this will last only as long as they have a rights allocation. Most vulnerable groups have fallen into deep poverty because of unemployment or poorly paid and insecure work, and limited prospects for a self-generated income.

Can a fisheries policy in its allocation of rights combine a poverty prevention and reduction function?

Poverty reduction favours an ITQ system which operates more effectively if the system mainstreams micro-enterprises as opposed to medium-size enterprises and includes regulation that prevents concentration over time.

Through small enterprises, the rights holders will accumulate capital and generate wealth and this will enable them to be lifted out of poverty. South Africa‘s governance reforms created an increased action space for those small and medium enterprises which were able to get an allocation to reduce their own poverty.

Poverty prevention favours collective allocation systems like open access, community allocation, basket allocation, or a territorial user rights fisheries (TURF) system. Through open access fishers will have safety nets and this will prevent fishers from falling deeper into poverty.

The action space created by MLRA never considered community quotas, an inshore open access regime, or a TURF system to reduce poverty among marginalised, poor and vulnerable fishers. Subsistence permits and interim relief permits were thought to perform the poverty-prevention function.

A possible solution is to create a hybrid system of merging collective rights and individual rights systems. The challenge for policy makers is to integrate this system into local municipality plans and support the creation of co-operatives to create a system that is equitable. How will this system absorb the conflicts between users, markets, and scarce resources?

Although the action space constrained vulnerable groups and fishers from accessing fishing rights and forced them into the informal action space, they were able to reorganise and place sufficient pressure on government to reassess rights allocation to coastal communities.

The representatives from coastal communities, government and researchers are now co-operating in the formal action space to draft a new small-scale fisheries policy.

The future of small-scale fishing looks promising, but there are key concerns that should be addressed to incorporate vulnerable groups into the mainstream of rights allocation.

If the objective of a new small-scale fisheries policy is to alleviate coastal poverty, to impact positively on the livelihood of the poor and to reduce vulnerability, the challenge for government and civil society is to ensure a suitable, flexible and adaptable allocation system that could apply to coastal communities.

The other concern is to define small-scale fishers more broadly than subsistence fishers, and allow them to sell their harvest on local or international markets.

Finally, state assistance is necessary for the development of self-governance structures to ensure the sustainability of both the resource and fishery-based livelihoods.

· Dr Isaacs is a senior lecturer at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape. On Thursday, PLAAS hosts a public seminar about South Africa‘s small-scale fisheries policy at the Centre for the Book in Cape Town. For more information visit

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