FEATURE | WESTERN CAPE 

How fishing in a Western Cape town is dying

“Our people have lived off the river for years … but fish don’t come here anymore”

Photo of fisherman on a boat
Ebenhaeser fisherman Michael Howburgh on the boat he uses to fish for harders in the Olifants River. This is his only income. Photo: Barbara Maregele
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“I’m a fifth generation fisherman but I don’t see the point of teaching my [8-year-old] son my family’s trade. What future will there be for him if there’s nothing for me now?” said Salvester Don. His family has survived by fishing along the Olifants River in the Western Cape for decades.

Don and his family live in the quaint coastal town of Ebenhaeser about 55 kilometres from Vredendal, nearly four hours drive from Cape Town. For years, residents of this small community have relied on small-scale fishing and farming to make a living.

But with the declining number of fish in the area, fishing permit and quota red tape, as well as increased mining on the coast, fishers in the area are becoming despondent about the future of their age-old tradition.

Don’s one-room shack which he shares with his wife and their children is among a dozen informal homes situated less than a kilometre from the mouth of the Olifants River. When GroundUp visited the area, it had been “one of those slow weeks” for the fishermen of Ebenhaeser.

“Our people have lived off the river for years. Our forefathers protected the river and we learnt to do the same. This is what we want to pass on to our children, but fish don’t come here anymore,” he said.

“My wife and I rely on the river to catch mostly harders for our daily income. We go to the sea for kreef because it is a high value species. But as local fishermen, using rods and small nets, there’s no future for us,” he said.

Don said residents of the small coastal town “used to eat fish three or four times a week” but this changed a few years ago when the amount of fish they brought back on a single fishing trip began to dwindle.

Don criticised government for its failure to assist small-scale fishermen. “There are a lot of costs involved if we go out to sea. Now we can’t even go deeper without permits. This means that you have to break the law in order to survive.”

In 2007, the Equality Court ordered the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism to develop a new small-scale fisheries policy. This was to give recognition to the rights of local fishermen. The order included that immediate “interim relief” be given to small-scale fishermen by giving them access to marine resources while the policy is being finalised.

The new policy was gazetted by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) in 2012. But regulations that enact the policy were only finalised in 2016. Now ten years after the order was made, the policy has still not been implemented.

Last month, Asanda Njobeni, acting deputy director for DAFF, admitted to Members of Parliament that DAFF did not have the resources to support the co-operatives at the heart of the small-scale fisheries policy.

Njobeni also told MPs that there were only three people in the Directorate for Small-Scale Fisheries Implementation. This means there are only three people for a coastline of 4,000 kilometres and over 300 fishing communities.

Ebenaeser is a small town nearly four hours north of Cape Town. Photo: Barbara Maregele

Don said besides the challenges around permit allocations, he feared that the threat of increased mining activity would worsen their plight. The controversial West Coast mineral sand mine, Tormin, in May applied to extend its mining into 148 hectares in three sections, including ten beaches along a stretch of coastline north of the existing mine.

Michael Howburgh, a friend of Don, said his interim relief exemption permit was not approved this year. He told GroundUp that he has been struggling to make ends meet on line fishing alone. “I don’t have another job. All I’ve known is fishing.”

“We sometimes spend four or five hours rowing out [fishing] for two weeks and only come back with about 30 or 40 harders. We sell the small ones locally for R1 each, so you can see it doesn’t add up to much. That’s how bad it is now,” Howburgh said.

Associate Professor Merle Sowman in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at UCT has worked with the Ebenhaeser fishers for over ten years. Sowman said a total of 30 fishers from Ebenhaeser and the neighbouring village of Papendorp have interim relief permits to harvest west coast rock lobster and linefish.

Traveling to Doringbaai or Elandsbaai to find the fish has many cost implications, Sowman said. She said accessing the landing sites where boats go out to sea as well as making sure their boats remain seaworthy is also difficult, Sowman said.

She said that research shows that there have been people who do not rely on fishing as their only income who were included in the interim relief system. While those who had a long history of fishing were excluded.

“This is creating conflict in communities, especially given that certain resources are under pressure. The small-scale fishers are competing with the commercial and recreational sector for a slice of the pie,” she said.

Sowman said that in 2008, there was a proposal to declare the Olifants River estuary a “no-take Marine Protected Area”. She said the estuary has been the main source of food and livelihood for about 80 families in Ebenhaeser. Sowman added that the “reduced freshwater flow in the river, the build up of a sand bar at the mouth and ongoing pressure on the harder resource from various fishery sectors” has made fishing for a living in the area increasingly difficult.

The current drought is also hurting Ebenhaeser’s fishers explains Michelle Joshua of Masifundise Development Trust. Low rainfalls have left the river level low, and this too affects the livelihoods of the town’s fishers.

Seated in the front of his small home, Salvester Don, looked to his young son standing behind him and said: “This culture of a whole community is dying slowly and it seems like there’s nothing we can do. In a few years, fishing as an income won’t exist.”

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