South African traditional small-scale fishing culture and livelihood

Thousands of South African traditional small-scale fishers, harvesters and fishworkers have their roots in fishing communities that have relied on the country’s rich and diverse marine resources for their livelihoods for generations.

They fish close to their home communities in relatively near-shore waters and the way they fish is part of a cultural tradition that has evolved over time and is often passed down from generation to generation. The knowledge that is passed includes the habits, migration, reproductive patterns, feeding, and lifestyles of the resources.

Their tools and methods of fishing are generally not capital intensive. They use low technology gear such as small boats both motorised and non-motorised, hand lines for line fish, snorkel diving, small and simple nets such as hoop nets for lobster and drift, gill and beach seine nets for net fish. They catch a variety of species including shellfish, crayfish and linefish.

The catch from traditional small-scale fishing is used both for local consumption and for earning income through sales on local and regional markets.

They sell their catch on quays and jetties, or to local shops or restaurants through local entrepreneurs. The quality of produce that they sell is extremely high as the fish is always fresh, normally being sold on the same day that it has been caught. Most traditional fishers also take home a ‘fry’ for their tables. Higher value species such as abalone and rock lobster is sold mostly to processing plants.
These fishers include both residents of coastal villages and towns; and a notable number of urban dwellers who travel to and from coastal areas to fish. Traditional small-scale fishing is the central to the local economy. A variety of other livelihoods depend upon this sector ranging from boat mechanics, boat menders, net repairing, fish merchants, fish cleaners and so forth.

The communities are generally either black or coloured in racial composition and have a history of suffering and struggle under apartheid whose laws included denying these communities access to fisheries. Many do not posses high levels of formal education whose primary skills lie in the harvesting of fish.

Fishing provides work at sea for the men and the women work with processing and marketing on land. Traditionally women played a central role in the fishing process in these villages, undertaking responsibility for the reproductive labour as well as being central to the processing and marketing of the fish. Many women are employed as seasonal workers in the fish processing plants but on a seasonal and highly fluctuating basis. The impact of globalisation has resulted in the marginalisation of women in a context in which the harvest is now often processed away from the village and exported.

During the last two hundred years of colonialism and then throughout the Apartheid regime, the fishing component of this environment has been exploited commercially by large, white owned companies and black, traditional and artisanal fishers have been largely excluded from accessing marine resources in their own right.

Prior to 1994, thousands of traditional small scale fishers living on the edge of this intensive capital, export-oriented fishing industry, were not covered by fishing legislation or management system. Many of them were often harassed and prosecuted for fishing illegally.
Over the past thirteen years in South Africa, since the first free and democratic elections in this country, considerable changes have been made to the policy and legislation governing people’s access to and use of marine resources.
The policy and fishing rights allocation system is heavily weighted in favour of commercial fishing enterprises and has resulted yet again in the exclusion and marginalisation of these small-scale fishers.