Will SA’s aquaculture industry float?

Yolan Friedmann, deputy CEO and conservation manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, warns that SA must radically change its attitude towards overexploitation of its fishing stocks if it wants to save them.

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Some scientists allege that now that over half the global fish catch serves as fishmeal to feed livestock, the cow has become the largest marine predator. Further, 50 to 60 marine fish are caught to raise one farm-raised salmon.

According to the UN’s Food and A griculture Organisation, the demand for fish has risen at twice the rate of human population growth. Global fish stocks are in rapid decline amid warnings of population collapses of all major remaining commercial species within 40 years if we continue current consumption patterns. Almost 90% of all large marine fish species are already gone, forcing nations to catch progressively smaller species to meet seafood demand.

While awareness of the issues and the need to take action is running high at international level, addressing them at a national level appears rather more problematic. The SA government, faced with tremendous pressure to deliver on poverty reduction, economic development and equity in coastal areas as well as to address the ever-dwindling marine life in our waters and meet international commitments, has already entered dangerous depths. In particular, minister of environmental affairs and tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk recently spoke of two critical issues that will have serious implications on the biodiversity of our oceans and coasts: the development of mariculture; and the intention to open up one of SA’s oldest and largest marine protected areas (MPAs), the Tsitsikamma, for recreational fishing.

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No quick fix
The government believes aquaculture will help to meet the increasing demand for fresh seafood, promote further economic development, and even assist with the rebuilding of wild stocks. However, while the development of a mariculture industry has the potential to supplement the availability of luxury seafood species, it can by no means be seen as a quick fix to the critical governance issues driving the collapse of wild stocks.

There are enough lessons and examples of best practice that prove a mariculture industry can succeed only if based on sound social, ecological and economic criteria – and if it is effectively monitored. Meanwhile, our existing environmental legislation must be implemented far more strictly to stop further marine degradation due to pollution, coastal development and overexploitation of resources, and to prevent the continuing loss and fragmentation of critical spawning and nursery habitats such as estuaries. We need a policy of integrated management, scientific reasoning and informed and transparent decision-making.

Ensuring there are enough ‘safe’ areas for species and ecosystems to recover has become a major global concern. The development of MPAs is critical to sustaining remaining coastal and marine biodiversity stocks. That’s why the intention of the government to open parts of the T sitsikamma MPA to exploitation, whether for recreational fishing, subsistence fishing or otherwise, should not be taken lightly. This MPA is an extremely important nursery area that sustains the entire linefish industry of the southern Cape. Given that only two of about 150 linefish species in SA are still considered exploitable – the rest falling into the categories of collapsed, threatened or overexploited – any protected area that contributes to the regeneration of fish stocks should be assigned more protection, not less.

Global efforts
Many countries, including SA, have agreed to global targets for conserving biodiversity such as promoting integrated coastal and ocean management, and designating 20% of the Exclusive Economic Zone as marine protected areas by 2012. In an unprecedented move, the US has called for a World Trade Organisation ban on subsidies that promote overfishing of increasingly fragile marine stocks. Global fishery subsidies totalling some US billion a year support longer periods at sea and greater catch efforts and include low-cost fuels and loan guarantees for gear or vessels.

Given the popularity of Africa’s rich fishing grounds with industrial fishing fleets from the EU, the implications of reduced subsidies on allowing fish stocks recovery could be vast. Yet, the European Commission continues to negotiate for valuable fishing access agreements with as many African nations as possible. – Roelof Bezuidenhout.