A Hypothesis: Subsistence Fishers turn Commercial Fishers an automatic transition?

This article is an abstract from a study by: B. M. Clark , M. Hauck , J. M. Harris , K. Salo & E. Russell (2002) Identification of subsistence fishers, fishing areas, resource use and activities along the South African coast, South African Journal of Marine Science, 24:1, 425-437, DOI: 10.2989/025776102784528574

Archeological evidence suggests that subsistence fishers have been active on the South African coast for many thousands of years. People are believed to have exploited intertidal resources on the South African west coast for at least 50 000 years. On the Eastern and Southern coasts, harvesting extends back for at least 100 000 years (Thackeray 1988).

Excavations at nearshore caves and coastal middens indicate that people seasonally visited isolated rocky points to harvest easily accessible rocky intertidal species, including mussels, patellid limpets, whelks and winkles (Parkington et al. 1988, Lasiak 1992, Jerardino and Yates 1996). However, although this kind of activity seems to have persisted relatively unchanged on the East Coast, it is believed to have largely fallen away on the West and South coasts (Siegfried et al. 1994, Griffiths and Branch 1997).

Siegfried et al. (1994) attribute the apparent disappearance of subsistence fishers from the West and South coasts to the arrival of European settlers in South Africa. They argue that most of the original huntergathers were exterminated during colonial raids or through disease, or were used as labour by the colonists. These arguments have led to a common perception that subsistence fishers exist only on the East Coast and that they subsist exclusively on intertidal resources. Results from this study suggest that this may not be entirely true.

Although there was a strong numerical bias towards the East Coast, interviewees in all parts of the country reported the existence of fishers who harvest coastal resources as a source of food and to supplement their basic needs for food. An alternative theory may explain the present data. Instead of simply having disappeared, fishers who originally harvested marine resources primarily as a source of food (i.e. who were subsistence fishers in the narrowest sense of the word) may have adapted their harvesting methods to accommodate the needs of a changing society.

In a situation where protein yield is the primary consideration and access to modern technology limited, many marine species are likely to be beyond the reach of subsistence fishers or simply not worth the effort required to harvest them.

However, factors such as the development of a cash economy, the introduction of modern fishing gear (outboard motors, nylon nets, fishing line, etc.), improvements in agriculture and recent increases in coastal tourism are likely to have removed many of these restrictions. In some cases this has involved a shift to harvesting resources for cash return and not for consumption. In areas occupied by colonists, subsistence fishers would probably have initially continued to harvest marine resources primarily for their own consumption.

As financial gains became possible, particularly for resources of high cash-value, it is likely that they would have started harvesting a wider variety of resources and in quantities greater than they could consume themselves, in the hope that they could barter or sell a portion of their catch. Such fishers would begin ranging over longer distances while harvesting and they may have been forced to travel farther to reach suitable harvest areas and would no longer be confined to rural areas where they could rely on agro-pastoral activities as the mainstay of their existence.

In fact, it would have proved advantageous for them to live close to or even within an urban setting, because this would have improved access to markets. The more successful fishers would probably have become fully fledged commercial fishers in time, selling or trading most of what they caught and even employing others to assist them with harvesting and processing of their catches.