Fish fall foul of new laws

For many years, aquaculture in South Africa has had to play second fiddle to the various departments of nature conservation. Now this
has changed. Or has it?

No amount of paper laws, such as those being proposed, will halt the spread of economically valuable fish species.
Photo: Nicolas James

Until recently, all permits required to operate an aquaculture venture in South Africa were issued by the department of environmental affairs. Fish farming was the only sector in agriculture, apart from the game industry, that did not fall within the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Permits were granted or refused along conservation lines, and had very little to do with the viability or otherwise of the project.

Times have changed…or have they?

Currently, new legislation is being promulgated by the National Department of Environmental Affairs under the acronyms NEMBA and AIS. These laws are conservation-based, and concern the use and distribution of alien and invasive organisms. Invasive organisms are those that have the proven potential to either displace or harm indigenous organisms. Alien organisms are those defined as ‘being out of their natural range’.

Whether being ‘out of their natural range’ includes an organism that does not naturally occur within the borders
of South Africa, or one that may (for example) occur only above a particular waterfall in a river system, is a matter of interpretation.

Retaining the veto
This aside, the proposed legislation seeks to establish ‘zones’ in which a particular type of aquaculture is permitted. These zones can be either ‘industrial parks’ or they can cover entire river catchments wherein a certain fish species is allowed to be farmed. On the face of it, this seems fine, except that once again an agricultural activity – and fish culture is nothing more than a form of stock farming – is being governed solely by the needs of nature conservation.

Although aquaculture now falls under the department of agriculture’s jurisdiction, nature conservation departments still retain the veto on any project. An examination of the AIS legislation shows that maps have been drawn up seemingly delineating parts of the country where certain species of fish may or may not be farmed.

Thus, parts of sensitive mountain river catchments may be off-limits to trout farmers due to the presence (current or historical) of endangered indigenous fish species that may be affected by trout.

In other areas, the culture of alien (although economically desirable) fish species such as Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) will be prohibited due to the presence of vulnerable indigenous species. This is even in places which are not demarcated conservation areas, such as farmland in catchments that have already been degraded by human activities.

Unrealistic legislation
Whatever the merits of the case, and there are indeed many, the element of ‘human nature’ has been completely ignored. If farmers in Limpopo, for example, are allowed to grow Nile tilapia due to the current reality that this species has already invaded the Limpopo River catchment, is it realistic to expect fish farmers in other provinces not to want to use this high-performance species? And will the legislation really stop its spread anyway?

No amount of paper legislation will ever control the spread of fish from one place to another if the fish have a proven highly desirable economic value. This is even more likely if the regulating agencies are seen not to be doing anything to physically safeguard vulnerable indigenous fish species in their natural habitat.

Creating sanctuaries in habitats where a species is safe from potential invasion is a far better and more positive option than blanket bans, zones and ‘permit conservation’ – all of which have achieved so little in the past.

Nicholas James is an ichthyologist and hatchery owner.