Fishing has taken him to many places, but roots are in Langebaan

FISHING has taken Norton Dowries, chairperson of Coastal Links SA (CLSA) in the Western Cape, all over the world, catching all species of fish like anchovies, snoek, harders, sardines, hake, snoek and even whales.

Dowries was born 60 year ago in the small West Coast town of Langebaan, near Cape Town, where his family lived for generations.

He comes from a small-scale fishing family that has been catching fish in the Langebaan Lagoon for many generations, and his father was also a fisherman.

Here he attended primary school, and was later sent to complete his schooling up to Standard 8 at Schoonspruit High School in Malmesbury.

After completing St 8, in 1972, Dowries went straight off to Walvis Bay in Namibia with his father to work for Tuna Fish Corporation to catch sardines and anchovies.

“This was difficult work.  I was not even catching any fish. I was working as a gulley boy, I had to wash dishes, wash the floors and clean everywhere,” says Dowries.

After working for one year in Walvis Bay, in the then South West Africa, Dowries decided to move on, and ended up working for the Sierra Fishing Agency, which Dowries believe was a front for a Japanese whale hunting business.

“We went to hunt whales in Las Palmas, The Canary Islands, Spain and Portugal. We worked in Porto and Seville and sometimes had to take a plane to Madrid in Spain.”

This work was illegal, and Dowries says they did pirate whaling for the Japanese.

“When we leave Cape Town, the name of our boat will be ‘Astrid’, when we arrive in Las Palmas, our boat’s name will be ‘Cape Fisher’, it will leave Cape Town as a South African registered boat and arrive in Las Palmas as a Panama registered boat.”

On the open seas they had to change the country flag of their boat many times.

“We had so many flags of different countries on our boat. When we were busy catching a whale and the captain saw a boat on the distant horizon, he would make us stop, pack everything, change our country flag and move on, until we reach the boat, if everything is fine, we will return to our hunting grounds and catch our whales.”

At that time, Green Peace was starting to operate on the open seas and started targeting the whaling boats.

“When the Green Peace activists would board our ships, they would say, ‘sink the crew and save the boat’, their motto was that the boats were not doing anything, it was the crew on the boats that were killing the whales.”

Sometimes, Dowries says that as a crew that they had to work under gun point, so difficult it was when they encountered Green Peace.

After whale hunting for four years, Dowries came back to South Africa, and joined Sea Harvest, working on their boats.

“I always worked as a fisherman for one of the big companies; I never had my own business as a fisherman.”

He started doing fishing when he was still at primary school, him and his friends going out to sea with his father and sometimes other local fishers.

“In the beginning our parents were worried, but, after a while they knew that we were at sea, catching fish and that we were safe.”

Dowries has been dong line-fishing and net-fishing all his life. At one time, while working at Sea Harvest, Dowries had an accident, and was taken off active sea duty, which was to him a low point in his life.

“I was put at a desk and made to do administrative work, and every time a crew came in, I was the one to make up their pay packets and take their pay to them.”

When the crews came back from sea, Dowries says that he could feel an emptiness inside him; he decided to leave Sea Harvest and took a job with Lusitania, trawling prawns in Mozambique.

After that, he went to go and catch chokka in Port Elizabeth, which was also not a type of work that he liked.

“Catching chokka is dirty work, and I decided to join the Oosterlig, another boat, and we were caught in a storm, and we lost three crew members, and we had to struggle to save the life of another crew member.”

This was difficult for him to deal with, as he took it hard, and it is something that always remained with him.

In about 95/96, Dowries was back living in Langebaan, and he discovered that some people had fishing quotas, and he got interested, but he never got a quota.

“In 1999, the subsistence permits came out, and it allowed us to only catch very little to sell, no-one was interested, except for a few of us. Later, when we were allowed to catch by the kilograms, everyone got interested in getting a subsistence permit.”

The first time Dowries got to know of Masifundise, was in 2000 when he met Jacke Sunde and others in Paternoster when they were donating boat engines to the fishers there.

He talked to the people from Masifundise, and decided that he wanted to know more about the struggles of small-scale fishers and how to take it forward.

This would eventually lead to the formation of CLSA and to Dowries becoming a member and a leader of the organisation.

“At that time, we in Langebaan were the ‘Kleinskaalse Vissers Vereniging’ and the fishers of Paternoster were organised as the ‘Paternoster Kleinskaalse Vissers’. We copied their constitution and that is how our fisher’s organisation in Langebaan started.”

The first time he attended a workshop of Masifundise was in Kleinmond in 2001, in preparation for attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Durban in 2002.

“We eventually sent a big delegation of fishers from the Western Cape. We travelled by train, and our main purpose was to hook up with representatives of small scale fisher organisations from around the world, in order for us to take home some of the lessons we can learn from them.”

After this the organisation in fishing communities started in earnest, and Coastal Links was eventually born and launched in 2005,with five branches, and today, there are twenty branches in the Western Cape, with about 90 branches in all the coastal provinces of South Africa.

“We lobbied the government, sent faxes, press release, sent delegations, and even chained ourselves to the gates of parliament to draw attention to the plight of the small scale fishers.”

All this paid off, and the small scale fishing policy is now a reality, with its implementation starting next year.

“As fishers we were invited to help develop the small scale fishing policy, and I was part of it.”

Dowries is the proud father of a son and daughter, and even prouder to be a grandfather to his grandchildren.

As a fisher, Dowries catches harders in the Langebaan Lagoon, he says he is not a boat owner, but works with other fishers.

At the moment, their biggest struggles as fishers in Langebaan is the zoning of the lagoon as a Marine Protected Area(MPA)into different zones, restricting them from catching fish in the area which would be most suitable and beneficial for them as fishers.

“We have taken the government to court over this, but the case has been dragging for more than three years now, because the government keeps on asking for postponements. The latest now is that SANParks is now also joining the litigation, and now they need sufficient time to get properly informed and to file their own papers.”

Dowries believes this is a delaying tactic, since the case was to have been heard in December 2015, but has been postponed to early next year.

Although Dowries says he has been catching all species of fish his whole life, he has never caught a yellow-tail, and would love to just catch at least one before he hangs up his fishing boots one day.

So if there is any fisher out there, maybe you can help Dowries to land his first yellow-tail?

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