Fishing Industry South Africa

30 April 2021

Step Back into the History of the Hake Fishing Industry of South Africa

Today, the deep-sea fishing industry in South Africa is a significant employer, economic contributor and role player in marine resource protection. The industry was at one stage threatened due to the near-depletion of resources, but has managed to turn the tide to a degree that has become one of the thriving and sustainable fisheries in the world.

A closer look at the history of the hake fishing industry provides a glimpse into a fishery that has managed against all odds to not only survive, but also to help ensure future generations will benefit from current responsible marine resource management practices.

Origins of the trawling industry

The year 1897 marked the start of deep-sea trawling in the waters of South Africa when J. D. F. Gilchrist, a marine biologist, undertook a challenging task to survey the Cape ocean resources. He was tasked with reporting on the results of the surveying regarding currents, geography of the seabed, the reefs, and more. The information was put to good use as evident in the fact that the yearly hake catch by trawlers was significant after World War I. Before that, the focus was mainly on catching West Coast and Agulhas sole.

The South African deep-sea trawl fishing industry expanded in the following years with several large vessels forming part of the fishery. World War II did put a restraint on the expansion, but following the years after, it became big business. By the start of the fifties, hake fishing delivered around 50 000 tons.

SADSTIA reported in their review of the hake fishery industry that on-board freezing gave the industry a capacity boost, and within five years the annual hake catch came to more than 110 000 tons.

Large-scale exploitation of South African waters

The fast depletion of resources started when the huge trawlers from the Soviet Union entered the South African fishing waters during the early sixties. Other countries quickly followed suit. It wasn’t long before even a country as far as Japan joined in the exploitation of the South African marine resources.

The South African trawlers and smaller fisher boats experienced a tremendous drop in their annual catch as the large foreign vessels had exceptional catch capacity. The competition for fish took its toll as the foreign vessels didn’t limit their catch to only the larger hake. With the smaller ones also caught, the fish resources dwindled.

By the early seventies the annual catch rate of hake in Namibian and South African waters came to more than 1 million tons. The catch rate quickly dropped and it became apparent that the fish resources would become depleted. In an effort to combat the overfishing, the Commission for the South East Atlantic Fisheries, known as ICSEAF, was established.

Control measurements were introduced ranging from the allowable size of fish net holes and catch limits to control inspections. The measures did not seem to work as the resources remained under pressure. Next came the introduction of the exclusive economic zone, known as EEZ. It was the outcome of an international convention held in the late seventies in which the Law of the Sea came about. It made it possible for member nations of the UN to create an exclusive zone, which would give a nation the sole natural resource utilisation rights in their zone. South Africa made use of the opportunity to protect its resources with the declaration of an exclusive zone. This made it possible to exclude the foreign vessels from catching fish in South African waters. It was significant as this would also mark the turning point for hake resources.

The South African fishing industry stepped up its efforts to protect the fish resources with the introduction of a quota system whereby companies received quotas according to their trawling history and capacity, their role in the fishing industry, investment and how they performed at the time. With this system, six companies received quotas for deep-sea trawling.

With the introduction of the Sea Fishery Act more control over quotas was possible. Ten years later, followed the Marine Living Resources Act and by the year 2000 broader participation in the South African hake fishing industry opened up the fishery sector. By 2006 a more formal and rather strict process for fishing rights came into being while more stakeholders gained rights.

Today, the fish resources are healthy and the industry is an example of how it is possible to maintain food security through sustainable resource management. As Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified, the deep-deep-sea fishing industry continues to be a major employer and important role player in the protection of the marine resources.

Acknowledgement to SADSTIA for the information used in this article:

SADSTIA: The history of hake fisheries. Web: Accessed online: April 2021.


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