In late 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN issued an urgent Press Release, warning that more than 6.5million people in Southern Africa face massive food insecurity due to the effects of the El Nino phenomena.

According to FAO, this will mainly affect marginalised communities in rural areas and some in urban areas.

However, small scale fishers have also already been affected by the El Nino phenomena, with changing weather patterns playing havoc with daily catches.

El Niño /ɛl ˈniːnjoʊ/ (Spanish pronunciation: [el ˈniɲo]) is the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (commonly called ENSO) and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific.

It is the warming of sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean which influences atmospheric circulation, and consequently rainfall and temperature in specific areas around the world.

El Nino is translated from Spanish as the boy child. Peruvian anchovy fishermen traditionally used the term – a reference to the Christ child – to describe the appearance of a warm ocean current off the South American coast around Christmas. Over the years the term El Nino has come to be reserved for the sequence of changes in the circulation across the Pacific Ocean and Indonesian archipelago when warming is particularly strong. Approximately 14 El Nino events affected the world between 1950 and 2003. Amongst them was the 1997/98 event, by many measures the strongest thus far this century, although South Africa escaped the impact of it to some extent.

El Nino occurs every five years and can last for up to three months, but in some cases it has been recorded to appear every seven years and sometimes lasted up to nine months.

(Sources: South African Weather Service and Wikipedia)

Ernest Titus a small-scale fisher from Lamberts Bay on the West Coast, and a Coastal Links member, says that the changing weather patterns are costing the fishers on the West Coast dearly.

“For a single sea trip, I spend R1 500 per day, that is about R700 on two boxes of bait, R400 for petrol for the boat, and then I have other expenses, like petrol for the bakkie to get the boat and the men to the sea,” says Titus.

“So far this season, we only went out eight days, and the catches were not good on all those days.”

For those eight days Titus spent almost R12 000, on which he got very little return, because he says that on some days he returned from the sea with 3kg  and up to 9kg of crayfish.

He was lucky that a few of those times he managed to come back with about 80kg of crayfish on one day.

Going out to sea and coming back with nothing or only a few fish, Titus regards as a ‘miss-trip’, and so far most fishermen have experienced too many ‘miss-trips’, making going out to sea unprofitable and counter-productive, as it takes money out of their pockets, without any returns.

From his own experience, Titus believes that the changing weather patterns have a great role to play in the hardships his community are suffering at present.

“In one day, you can experience the wind blowing from different directions, 80% of the time the South West wind is blowing.”

Titus also believes that an anti-clockwise wind and current system is happening now, where the sea current is flowing in a direction that is not normally prevalent this time of the year.

“The current that we have mostly nowadays, forces the crayfish to swim against it, if it wants to swim towards where we are.”

This causes the crayfish to swim away from the fishing grounds of the Lamberts Bay fishers.

Titus says that one day, when he came from one of his daily trips, he discovered that about 90% of his crayfish was in berry (it had eggs), and he had to put them back into the sea.

This he also ascribes to the changing weather patterns, and that it now is also changing the reproductive cycles of the crayfish, which would normally be with egg between May and July.

That is why the crayfish season opens in November, because he believes, by that time they would have already spawned their eggs.

Mary Hull, Interim Relief Caretaker and Coastal Links member in Kleinmond on the South Coast of the Western Cape says that the changing weather patterns also plays havoc with their fishing community’s ability to live sustainably this season.

“The boats are not going out, the fish are too deep in the sea and our boats are too small to go that deep into the ocean,” says Hull.

She says so far the fishers have gone out to sea for only a few days as the wind has always been too strong, and when the wind is not blowing, the fish are not in the water.

Her fishing community are on interim relief permits which allow them to catch snoek, cape bream, yellow tail, crayfish and tuna.

“I don’t understand why we have been given permits for tuna as that is a species we cannot catch since we do not have the kind of boats that can go far enough out to sea to catch.”

Hull says that over the years they have raised this issue with the department every year and that the tuna should be replaced with another species.

She says that if they launch their boats from Maasbaai in Pringle Bay, but if they launch from there they cannot land with their catch at Maasbaai.

But, it would be difficult for them to get back to Kleinmond if they launch in Maasbaai, and the other problem is that in Maasbaai they will mainly be catching yellow-mouth (geelbek) and kabeljou, species for which they do not have permits.

Hull feels strongly that the department should take away the tuna permits and replace it with yellow-mouth and kabeljou.

Both Titus and Hull believe that the inability for fishers to go out to sea and come back with sustainable catches, have devastating social consequences.

Hull says that many families in Kleinmond did not have enough money to send the recently matriculated youth to college because of a lack of funds, causing many youngsters to fall into criminal activities and the abuse of drugs, because they have nothing to do.

Besides selling their fish, many fishers also use their catch to feed  their families.

“For instance, we all know that Mondays are fish days, and most families eat fish on a Monday,” says Titus.

He says that one day the problem had become so difficult, a boat came in with some cape bream, and members of the community almost fought with each other over the fish, since most of them have not eaten fish in a long time.

Another tragedy of El Nino is that, when the fishers come back with little fish, they have to hike the prices in order to make up for their expenses.

This in turn makes it difficult for poor people to be able to eat fish, once again creating the situation where only the rich are able to put good food on their table.

“The whole community are affected, if one fisherman does not make good catches, it affects a lot of people, because fishers support many people, their wives, children even their parents and other family members.”

Titus says the community is becoming hopeless, and hopes that the situation will turn around soon, and that the weather patterns returns to normal, as it should be this time of the year.

He says that the only other activities the fishers can fall back on when fishing is bad, is to go and work on the potato farms and the building industry, but these industries also does not have much to offer at the moment.

Hull says that besides the weather patterns interfering with her community’s ability to earn a living, the government environmental agencies are not making it easier for them also.

“Cape Nature Conservation is closing everything on the community. We are not allowed to gather bait anymore. We have an MPA that has been around here since forever. There must be lots of fish in there, and they can open it to the community for a while, to allow us to at least earn a living during this time.”

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