Knives out for government’s megabucks ‘sushi’ plan
Minister wants more black fishermen chasing the world’s tastiest catch, but is there foul play afoot?
A government plan to allow ‘development’ fishermen to catch the world’s most tasty fish with help from a fleet of foreign vessels has prompted accusations of foul play.
But South Africa’s Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana insists the move is aimed at allowing new entrants access to the prized Southern Bluefin Tuna fishery – which supplies the global sushi and sashimi market.
Up until recently South Africa was only allowed to catch 40 tons of the prized species whose total allowable catch are tightly controlled by the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna. As from this year the quota has been increased to 450 tons following years of pressure from industry and negotiation by fisheries officials who are now under pressure to deliver the fish – based on a ‘use it or lose it’ principle. A single bluefin tuna sold for R4,16m earlier this year at a Tokyo market, with average market prices of around R500/kg.
Based on the increased quota Zokwana last year increased the number of tuna rights and vessels when finalising long term rights for southern bluefin, which are caught with large deep-sea super-freezer vessels.However, this year it emerged he has earmarked 32 new southern bluefin rights applicants for an additional development plan, to be designed and implemented by a new Fisheries Transformation Council.
Neither the earmarked new rights applicants nor the members of the Fisheries Transformation Council have been identified, and details of the development plan are still unknown. What is clear is that the plan involves pairing “development” fishermen with a foreign vessel in order to broaden participation in the historically exclusive fishery.
The plan has drawn criticism from existing rights holders, who are either prevented from teaming up with foreign vessels or allowed to do so only under stringent conditions – as per official government policy. Rights holders are also suspicious that the scheme may be used to benefit politically connected individuals at the expense of genuine fishermen, as has happened in the past.
“We can’t use foreign vessels but they can? They want to cut us out,” said one industry insider. “And why the big secret? And who is likely to benefit out of this? Will it be genuine transformation or another case of fish for pals?”
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries did not respond to Times Select queries about the development plan. However, speculation of a government deal to secure foreign vessels was fuelled by a presentation by the department in June to parliament’s portfolio committee on agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
At the time, former fisheries boss Siphokazi Ndudane – who is under precautionary suspension for an unrelated matter – told the committee SA had secured access to 12 longline vessels to drive the project, of which she was the “commissioner”. She said the plan would create thousands of jobs.Ndudane could not be reached last week to clarify her remarks.
A vague description of the plan also emerged in letters sent earlier this year to rights applicants. They said: “In the consideration of the current perpetual barriers of entry within the large pelagic longline sector, the minister acknowledges that strides need to be made so as to ensure full utilisation within the sector.
“The minister identified prospective 32 appellants which may fall within the development plan. Accordingly, these entities will be invited to attend to the aforementioned development process and assessed accordingly.”
Some fishing stakeholders questioned the viability of the development plan, with each appellant likely to receive only a tiny quota in an industry where vessels cost a minimum of R5m. Stakeholders are also jittery about the “vague” Fisheries Transformation Council, which will be able to determine quota allocations over and above the normal judicial process.
There is also unhappiness about the planned use of foreign vessels despite moves to have the vessels built locally and support the shipbuilding industry. A feasibility study in support of the idea was funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, and global marine technology company Wärtsilä developed a vessel design suitable for SA conditions, Times Select established. Wärtsilä South Africa representative Greg Davids confirmed he had been driving the plan in the hope of promoting economic development.
Trevor Wilson, chairman of the SA Longline Tuna Association, declined to comment on the department’s plan for the fishery, claiming he had no insight into the matter.
Zokwana is under increasing pressure to deliver fishing rights to the previously disadvantaged, particularly small-scale fishing communities along the coast who were largely excluded from the formal quota system.
Frustration at the perceived slow pace of transformation is believed to be a major cause of the poaching crisis.
At a press conference two weeks ago, Zokwana lashed out at the international tuna industry, claiming it was largely exploitative towards African nations. However, he said there were cases where using foreign vessels was the only way to allow new rights holders access to the resource.
Zokwana also confirmed appointment of the members of the Fisheries Transformation Council, but said it was too early to identify them. “They will not be people involved in the fishing industry,” he said.
The department is equally concerned about unreported and illegal fishing activities by some large fishing companies. Zokwana has also accused some existing rights holders, particularly larger companies, of being anti-transformation in order to preserve their commercial advantage.