Sitting in a restaurant in Port Elizabeth awaiting the arrival of a shipment of Nile tilapia from overseas, I reflected on the 14 months of turmoil, effort, frustration and more than 600 emails that led to this event. That such a shipment should take this long is a sad reflection of the negative attitudes that prevail in government administration.
If I worked in a government role in aquaculture, I would hang my head in shame that such a situation prevails in a country that professes to encourage aquaculture. However, the fact that our government officials have no such shame has become all too evident. All they do is tick boxes in order to cover themselves against any comebacks. They do the minimum work possible to promote the industry.
It is interesting to compare attitudes in neighbouring countries. Recently, a large tract of land in a neighbouring country was earmarked for a large tilapia pond farm development. The Environmental Impact Assessment and operational permitting took a mere six months, followed by an official visitation from the department concerned – and note, only one department is involved. During this visit, the officials enthused: “This is wonderful. You’re providing employment, where before there was none, and soon you’ll be growing food in an otherwise unproductive area! How can we be of assistance?”
It is this last sentence that emphasises the difference in attitude between the success of aquaculture there and the abject failure here. Our officials are obstructive and obsessed with ‘permitting’ without any understanding of the greater picture.
Despite their many failings, it was easier to get a permit from the department of environmental affairs (DEA) when aquaculture fell under that department only, than it is from the current unlovely bedfellows of the department of agriculture forestry and fisheries (DAFF) and the DEA.
South Africa’s obsession with permits when clearing live fish was recently demonstrated when a colleague of mine attempted to import fish from the UK. He had three import permits for the species and the shipment had a state health certificate accompanying it. However, he had overlooked the DAFF import veterinary permit, which costs R150 and is obtainable online. He was not allowed to obtain the permit whilst customs held his shipment.
The official told him that the fish would be destroyed, and that he would have to pay for this. My colleague was forced to bid farewell to a R40 000 shipment. Customs could have held the shipment until my colleague had purchased the permit, but that would not have given the official the power that she obviously enjoyed.
I wonder how they killed the fish?
Until recently, the NSPCA had shown little interest, simply quoting the Animals Protection Act 71 of 1962 when approached for help. Thankfully, it has now come on board to rectify an intolerable situation.
Government’s negative attitude will continue to encourage the backyard importation of illegal species. This will inevitably evolve into a conservation issue and prevent the sort of large-scale aquaculture thriving to our north and east. Interestingly, to stimulate the industry, the Mozambican authorities provide free Nile tilapia to both their commercial and small-scale farmers. Can you imagine our vindictive, red tape- obsessed administration doing likewise?
Nicholas James is an ichthyologist and hatchery owner.