1. Home
  2. Africa
  3. Southern Africa
  4. South Africa

More support needed for South Africa's subsistence fishermen

Fishermen at Durban Harbour
Fishermen at Durban Harbour (Kleinz1/flickr)

Bobby Moodliar, 52, is one of thousands of subsistence fishermen trying to eke out a living from the waters around South Africa’s port city of Durban. Until a few years ago, he was able to support his entire family from the fish he caught in the city's harbour, which is regarded as one of the most important fish nurseries in the Indian Ocean and is home to salmon, shad, barracuda, and various species of migratory fish. 

"There is no better place to fish than the harbour area. There fish are bountiful, and you make a good living if you come at the right time of the day," he told IRIN. “When fishing was good to me... my wife was not working and I was able to support my family and send kids to school.”

But fishing in the harbour, as well as its north and south piers, has been off-limits since 2009, when port authorities imposed a ban based on the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, developed in response to perceived threats to ship and port facilities after the 9/11 attacks. Since then, Moodliar and his family have been struggling to get by on his wife’s salary from working at a local shoe factory.

“Many of the fishermen were feeding their families by going to sea," said Desmond De Sa, chairman of the KwaZulu Natal Subsistence Fishermen Forum, an organization representing local fishermen. "When they closed off the harbour area, many of [them] and their families became destitute.”

He added that some fishermen could not afford transport to the north and south coasts and that catches were not as abundant as in or near the harbour. “Many of our members simply joined soup kitchens because they could not get formal jobs, and fishing was all they knew.”

Issuing permits

The Forum has long lobbied for the ban to be overturned, and in May of this year the port authority announced that fishermen would be allowed to return to the harbour after successfully applying for permits. 

Moodliar was one of more than 4,000 fishermen from KwaZulu-Natal Province who crammed into a local hall to start the application process at the end of May. “If I am granted a permit, things would look good again for me and my family,” he said.

De Sa said a total of about 10,000 people had applied for permits to fish in the harbour. He attributed the large number to job losses resulting from the closure of many local clothing factories and other businesses in recent years. 

Durban port master Dennis Mqadi said they will be issuing permits in the next few weeks, but could not say how many. “A decision on how many permits will be issued has not been taken yet. You must bear in mind that there are many commercial activities, and therefore we have to restrict entry and the number of fishermen allowed at certain times,” he told IRIN.

The port’s permit scheme arrives as South Africa re-evaluates broader policies on subsistence fishing, which have done little to help fishermen like Moodliar lift their families out of poverty.

New policy on small fishermen

South Africa's fishing industry is worth around R6 billion annually [US$586 million], according to the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), but the vast majority of profits are concentrated in the commercial sector. The total number of small-scale and subsistence fishermen is estimated at just over 8,000, according to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), with more than half concentrated in Eastern Cape Province and the remaining half divided between the Western Cape Province and Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Until recently, their activities were governed by the Marine Living Resources Act (MRLA) of 1998, which was meant to help redress the marginalization of subsistence fishermen during the apartheid era while ensuring that the fishing industry remained internationally competitive. However, according to Moenieba Isaacs, of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of Western Cape, the allocation of fishing rights through the MRLA was flawed and excluded many poor fishermen who lacked the skills and resources to comply with application requirements. The Act's narrow definition of subsistence fishermen, which did not allow them to catch or sell fish to earn an income, actually increased poverty levels in many households.

A new policy governing South Africa's small-scale fisheries, adopted in 2012, aims to ensure that small-scale fishermen are formally recognized, catered for and managed. Carol Moses, spokesperson for DAFF, said the new policy would contribute to poverty alleviation "through the sustainable use of marine living resources for food security".

Although describing the policy as "a huge improvement", Isaacs was more cautious. The new act recognizes small-scale fishermen as a group and promises more investment in infrastructure, training and capacity-building, but implementation has so far been lacking.

"It's not clear what budget there is for small-scale fishers or who is implementing the policy," Isaacs told IRIN. 

Support needed

Diana Scott, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal's School of Development Studies, said the living conditions of small-scale fishermen had not improved in recent years and that government support has been minimal or non-existent. 

Faizel Khan, a recreational fisherman from Durban, observed that fishermen in Cape Town have been supported by government to set up fishing cooperatives. "They have big fishing boats and they have become mainstream fishermen. There is nothing stopping fishermen from Durban doing the same. But we also need government support to do this effectively and successfully,” he said. 

Isaacs said investment in setting up fishing cooperatives in the Western Cape had come from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and that there had been little consultation with DAFF. "The fisheries department says it’s now talking with DTI to provide more support [to small-scale fishermen], and that will mean infrastructure, training and capacity at community level. But they’re not clear on what amount; they're still busy with an implementation plan."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Help make quality journalism about crises possible

The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.


Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story. 


We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.