SA’s fishing resources in precarious state

Despite important progress made over the past ten years in restoring and improving the state of South Africa’s marine resources, significant challenges remain. According to a new report by WWF-SA, many of South Africa’s inshore marine resources are still considered overexploited or collapsed.

Titled WWF Fisheries: Facts and Trends South Africa, the report provides an overview of the status of the local fishing sector and the marine environment in which it operates. In highlighting some of the key areas of concern, the report paints a clear picture of the precarious state in which we find ourselves.

It also emphasises the importance of WWF-SA’s drive to promote an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF); the state of all marine organisms and interconnected processes are considered when fishing decisions are being made.

Globally, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that approximately 85% of the world’s fish stocks are either overexploited or exploited to their maximum. The WWF report suggests that we are in a relatively similar position, with almost 50% of our marine resources fully exploited.

A further 15% of marine resources are overexploited, including important commercial species such as West coast rock lobster and Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna populations. Of equal concern is the number of species in which the current stock status is uncertain.

Some of the other key findings include:

  • While the offshore marine resources are in a relatively stable state, some of the most popular seafood choices South Africans currently make include species that are classified as collapsed; such as kob/kabeljou and geelbek.
  • The status of many of South Africa’s linefish species is particularly worrying, with almost 70% of the commercial species considered collapsed; less than 10% of their pre-fishing populations.
  • Fisheries play a critical role in providing direct and indirect livelihoods for over 140 000 people in South Africa. Fish protein is also a critical protein source for many of the traditional fishing communities along the South African coastline, many of whom are considered food insecure. The successful roll out and implementation of a new small-scale fisheries policy will be critical in ensuring the livelihoods and food security of many of these fishing dependent communities.
  • There are a number of positive initiatives underway to improve and restore the state of our marine resources. These include the Marine Stewardship Council’s (an international eco-label) certification of South Africa’s offshore and inshore hake trawl fishery as well as the industry’s efforts to reduce some of the broader environmental impacts such as seabird bycatch and habitat damage.
  • Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) play a critical role in supporting our marine ecosystems. South Africa has gazetted 21 coastal MPAs covering approximately 20% of the coastline but as yet, no offshore MPAs have been created. This is a concern as less than 0.4% of South Africa’s exclusive economic zone is protected by MPAs. Globally, less than 0.1% of our oceans are formally protected in MPAs, compared to some 10% of our terrestrial ecosystems.

The report also highlights the fact that given the state of many of South Africa’s fisheries resource (in particular those found inshore), it is unlikely that job creation can take place in the short-term without progressive rebuilding strategies.

With 65% of SA’s fish stocks overexploited, the government could not look to commercial fishing to create jobs, although the sector was capable of securing the existing 140 000 jobs, said WWF CEO Morne du Plessis.

The fishing sector is among those the government has earmarked to help create the 5-million new jobs promised in the New Growth Path, by 2015.

Commercial fisheries contribute 0,5% of gross domestic product (R3,1bn in 2008) and employ about 27 000 people, with another 100 000 employed in fishery-related enterprises, according to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. SA has an estimated 29 330 “true subsistence fishers”, while 500 000 people fish recreationally, catching R3bn worth of fish this year.

“Given the importance of the fisheries sector in SA, it is not possible to look at job creation and have fish in the sea. We need to look at job security for the people already in fishing,” said Du Plesses at the release of the NGO’s report on the state of the country’s fisheries.

Fishers in SA landed R4,4bn in fish (583000 tons) in 2009. Advances in fishing technology had increased the proportion of overexploited, depleted or recovering world fish stocks from 10% in 1974 to 32% in 2008, the WWF said. The widening gap between sustainable production levels and real consumption rates was considered a leading environmental and socioeconomic problem, from which SA was not immune.

However, increasing consumer and retailer awareness of the precariousness of the world’s, and SA’s, fisheries had resulted in increased demand for sustainably caught or sustainably farmed fish.

It commended SA’s second- largest supermarket, Pick n Pay, on its decision to ensure that it sold only sustainably caught or farmed fish from 2015. Pick n Pay is the first African retailer to make this pledge.

Pick n Pay sustainable development manager André Nel said 2015 was a tight deadline because not enough suppliers sold only sustainably caught or farmed fish.

“Recent studies have shown that effective management and science-based decision making can set the stage for ecological and economic recovery. Responsible consumers and retailers are also playing an increasingly important role in building the momentum for change within the global fishing industry by demanding `greener’ choices,” added Du Plessis.

The long-term success of South Africa’s fishing industry and coastal fishing communities is inextricably linked to our ability to implement sustainable solutions to these challenges through responsible and collaborative management. In the past, fisheries were managed under a single species approach, which failed to incorporate the effect of fishing activities on non-target components of marine ecosystems. This strategy has failed us.

“Today there is a growing understanding of the need to implement a holistic approach to environmental management if we are to meet man’s growing demands on our marine ecosystem, this is clearly one of the key challenges of the 21st century,” concluded Du Plessis.

Some interesting fish facts:

  • R4.4 billion of fish were landed in 2009. This is equivalent to 583 000 tonnes of fish.
  • Commercial fisheries contribute about 0.5% of South Africa’s GDP.
  • In the impoverished Eastern Cape region, R500 million in foreign revenue is generated in the squid fishery every year; making it one of the country’s most valuable fisheries. South Africa’s commercial fishing industry employs 43458 people, including seasonal and permanent employment.

Download the full report here

How can you become part of the solution?

Consumers can help by buying sustainable seafood. For more information, visit or visit the mobi site at