‘Ridiculous levies will kill the last legal abalone fishermen’
‘We are talking about people who are vulnerable, not wealthy, and who cannot run to court for relief’
If only the fisheries department could nab poachers as efficiently as it nets profits.
The embattled department, which has failed to reduce rampant poaching of inshore marine resources such as kreef and abalone, stands accused of fleecing legal abalone divers with massive levies – and withholding permits if divers cannot pay.
A special levy was introduced about 15 years ago to fund anti-poaching initiatives which never materialised. The legal diving community has since argued for the levy to be reduced in line with levies in other fisheries – to no avail.
Many divers boycotted the levy because the money disappeared into the Marine Living Resources Fund, which has come under the spotlight for financial irregularities.
One diver told Times Select he is battling to survive as a result of a huge levy backlog. Several other divers described years of frustration at the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries’ refusal to address their financial concerns, particularly in light of the huge profits made by illegal divers.
Divers have to pay an annual levy in excess of R10,000. “They want to get as much out of us as they can,” said one veteran diver who had to borrow money from his family to pay off his debt.
Scott Russell, a permit holder and former representative the SA Abalone Industry Association, said the fisheries department had steadfastly refused to reduce the levy it introduced “under false pretences”.
He said: “It is a complete mess. Various petitions have been made to the department to reduce the levies to something more reasonable but the department stifled all of those and came up with ridiculous excuses. The department also didn’t ever invoice for the levies.”
Russell said the department had not produced statements giving detailed breakdowns of what was owed, resulting in widespread confusion. It was also unclear whether the department could insist on divers paying levy debts dating back almost 10 years.
“In cases where rights holders have boldly paid prescribed debt, and made payments of current debt, the department has still – and we believe unlawfully – refused to issue permits,” Russell said. “We are talking about people who are vulnerable, not wealthy, and who cannot run to court for relief.”
Industry representative Andre Chim said profits from abalone quotas did not justify the “ridiculous” levy. “Abalone quotas are tiny – divers aren’t earning much money at all.”
Chim said divers might have been more amenable to the levy had funds raised been used to curb poaching. “As much as we objected to it when it initially came out, if these [anti-poaching] operations had worked we would have been very happy with the levy. But poaching has actually got worse. We live in a lawless society.”
Times Select sent the fisheries department a request for comment on Wednesday morning. By Friday afternoon, it had not replied.