When South Africa introduced a new fisheries policy in 2005, it had devastating and lethal implications for small-scale fishers. Fishing rights were allocated under an ITQ (Individual Fishing Quota) system, developed with large-scale industry in mind, which ended up excluding small-scale fishers.
Carsten Pedersen, a program officer with Masifundise, a Cape Town-based NGO working with fishing communities, explained what happened: "When the minister signed the policy into law, 90% of the country's 30,000 small-scale fishers suddenly had no access rights." It was illegal for them to fish, and overnight they were made into criminals. People lost their livelihoods, and some their lives. "Some were forced to poach at night in the Atlantic, or drowned because there was no support for safety mechanisms."
Poverty increased in what were already some of the country's poorest communities, and the psychological costs were also high: "If you speak to some of the fishers, they felt stripped of their dignity, they felt as though it was a return to apartheid times, being told that you're nothing, you're not allowed to do anything," said Pedersen.
It took years of struggles, political fights and legal battles. But eventually Masifundise, working with the community-based fisher movement it helped to establish, Coastal Links, managed to get a new small-scale fishing policy endorsed by the South African government in June 2012. The policy is currently in the process of implementation.
"It's definitely the most progressive fishing policy in Africa," said Pedersen, "and probably in the whole world." The new policy builds on the traditional small-scale fishery system, and does not apply quotas and the ITQ system to small-scale fishers. Based on principles of equity, including gender equity, justice and human rights, it deals with the entire value chain of fish.
Co-management is a key element of the new policy. Fishing communities will have to form legal entities, like cooperatives, which will be granted fishing rights rather than quotas. A co-management committee, made up of representatives from the legal entities, will work with government departments to decide on issues like rights, safety mechanisms and so on. A multi-species basket system will be used to allocate fishing rights, rather than quotas, and the committees will establish zones where only small-scale fishers can fish. The co-management committees will also look at support mechanisms to improve the entire value chain-ensuring opportunities for women in fish processing and infrastructure development, for example.
Marketing would also be an important aspect of the co-management committee's role, said Pedersen. "We need mechanisms in place to ensure that coastal communities can be more directly involved in marketing. For example, now middlemen buy lobster directly from the communities, then sell them to an export company, which exports to Asia. The big money is further up the value chain. There's huge potential for economic development and job creation in coastal communities."
Instead of the marginalization of the previous policy, this move to co-management is empowering fishing communities, giving them responsibility and incentivizing them to manage their fishery responsibly. Masifundise is now working to try to influence African Union fishing policy development along similar lines, and to spread its message globally. "For us the Slow Fish network is important because it can contribute enormously to knowledge empowerment via information sharing," said Pedersen.
"Discussing issues with colleagues from other places at events like Slow Fish confirms over and over again that whether fisherpeople are from Spain, Chile or Mauritania, to a large extent the dynamics are the same," he said. "It's not a south/north issue." In a reversal of the usual conception, he said, "it's not the north assisting the south, more the south assisting the north. In South Africa we have gone a long way, and many in Europe can learn from our example."