Eastern Cape Small Scale Fishers say NO! to seismic surveys

In 2019 and 2020, Minister Barbara Creecy granted 15 year rights to 78 new small scale fishing cooperatives in the Eastern Cape. This followed the historic development of the small scale fisheries policy in 2012,  which aimed to provide ‘redress and recognition to the rights of Small Scale fisher communities in South Africa previously marginalized and discriminated against…’. 

Last week, 13 of these recently formed small scale fisher cooperatives from the coastline between Tsitsikamma and Kei Mouth, gathered at a workshop near Port Alfred to build solidarity, to share experiences and advice with one another, and to start to develop a shared vision for the small scale sector. These fisher leaders spoke and dreamed together about how to grow their co-operatives into sustainable businesses that treat workers with dignity, practice ethical fishing based on their deep local ecological knowledge, help to protect the ocean from extractive and damaging activities, and that invest their earnings back into community development initiatives such as drug rehabilitation programmes and youth employment.

Small scale fishers know the sea. Their relationships with the ocean are characterized by deep respect, intergenerational knowledge and sacred cultural connection. The ocean is life for these fisherfolk; and at last, they have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to their household and community economies, through their life giving relationship with the sea. Many co-op members have worked for decades as crew in the chokka (squid) industry, often under a form of debt slavery. In 2021 their co-ops were granted squid fishing permits, and they are eager to finally have the chance to run their own businesses, in ways that are better for workers, for their communities and for the ocean. Others are seaweed harvesters, usually older women who carry out this back breaking labour, spending nights camping on beaches, to sell for very low prices to a ‘middle man’. Now, these women are waiting for their permits to be able to harvest and sell sea weed in their own right, and according to their own knowledge of how and when to harvest; this will be life changing for them.

These long awaited, long overdue opportunities for small scale fishers are completely undermined and threatened by the granting of oil and gas exploration rights in the ocean precisely where these communities are now allowed to fish. Co-operatives from Cold Stream, Kareedouw, Humansdorp and Gqeberha looked in outrage at the maps showing the extent of the seismic survey just off their coastline, right in the breeding, spawning and migratory routes of the species they have been granted rights to harvest. Cooperatives from Port Alfred, Hamburg, Benton, Kiwane and Kei Mouth looked at the map showing the Amathole Marine Protected Area off of their coastline, with oil and gas exploration zones crowding in on all sides, and asked ‘where are we supposed to fish?’. Cooperatives from Centane, Ntubeni and Port St Johns want to know ‘Why were we never consulted? Why did we only find out about the Wild Coast seismic survey one month before it begins? What will happen to all of the sea life that we know, love and depend upon?’.

How can Minister Creecy grant rights to small scale fishing communities, claiming ‘transformation’ and ‘economic justice’, and at the same time grant exploration rights to powerful oil and gas interests, along the very same stretch of coastline?

As this extremely important citizen led campaign to resist oil and gas grows, let us remember to listen to the voices of the coastal people whose inextricable relationship with the ocean goes back many generations, and has withstood wave after wave of dispossession and injustice. Small scale fishers know the sea – listen to them.