What the fish!

08 January 2014 - 02:24 By SCHALK MOUTON, QUINTON MTYALA and GRAEME HOSKEN

Public protector investigations of mismanagement of the fishing industry are mounting against Minister of Agriculture, Forestries and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

Many small-scale fishermen are threatening to turn to organised crime in order to sustain their families after losing their long-term fishing rights.

"Since there is absolutely nothing else I can do, I will have to join the army of illegal fishers," said Charles America, one of the fishermen who have been declined a line-fishing licence. "I will have to run the gauntlet between legal and illegal fishing. It is sad, but there's absolutely nothing else I can do."

Both America and the DA have asked the public protector to investigate the issuing of licences.

Oupa Segalwe, spokesman for the public protector's office, confirmed yesterday that it was investigating the matter.

He said the protector was also investigating an unrelated case to establish whether there was any connection with the Black Association of Wine and Spirits Industry, after Joemat-Pettersson had given the association funding of R1.4-million.

The protector's office is investigating nine other cases against Joemat-Pettersson's department, including cases relating to alleged unreasonable decreasing of quotas by the regulator; abalone allegedly not being policed and tax invoices allegedly not being issued. Another case relates to R4-million allegedly spent on a farmers' pilot project that nothing came of.

Hundreds of small-scale fishermen, who have held long-term fishing licences since 2005, lost their right to go to sea when the department failed to re-issue permits to them. In 2005, 450 fishermen were allocated line-fishing licences, which expired last year. Of these, only 105 applicants' fishing rights were renewed. Licences were awarded to 100 new applicants.

The men who lost their rights were yesterday given a two-month reprieve to continue fishing on their old permits while the department tries to sort out the matter.

The DA has launched a Promotion of Access to Information Act application in an attempt to force the department to release the score sheets used to judge licence applications. It has called on the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, to investigate the lawfulness of the licences.

According to DA MP Pieter van Dalen, the licences have been granted before all the applicants' score sheets were evaluated.

The fishing licences debacle is almost a carbon copy of the department's handling of its R1-billion patrol and research vessel management contract, in which the 12-year holder of the contract, Smit Amandla, was turned away in favour of a politically connected company, Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium. In this case, the tender score cards for inexperienced Sekunjalo were marked with full scores, while Smit Amandla received low scores.

In November, Madonsela found that Joemat-Pettersson had acted improperly in abruptly cancelling the contract of Smit Amandla after it blew the whistle on the department's irregular awarding of a contract to Sekunjalo.

A source in the department said management had brought the crisis upon itself.

"They are stumbling from one crisis to another. They were advised that the licence issue was sensitive . that it was a powder keg waiting to explode, and now this has happened," she said.

"The two-month reprieve is not enough. It doesn't help postponing the matter by two months but having no proper plan to resolve an issue that involves people's lives and livelihoods."

She said the crisis around the research vessels compounded by the fishing licensing controversy would affect consumers and fish stocks.

"South Africa's fish supply is not endless. It is under threat and the issuing of licences to 'no-name' people and not . established fishermen is going to [worsen] the threat."

The secretary of the SA Traditional Line Fishing Association, Bruce Logan, said not only fishermen but hawkers, seafood-processing factories and seafood restaurants would suffer because of the "flawed" allocation of licences.

"It will smash this multimillion- rand industry, and tens of thousands of people will be affected. This is a traditional protein food for many previously disadvantaged people, and [this] will have a devastating effect on the economy of South Africa," said Logan.

The acting deputy director-general of the fisheries branch of the department, Desmond Stevens, who had determined the allocation of fishing rights, defended his decision yesterday. "Our decisions are based on utilisation of the rights and transformation. There's no decimation of the line fish sector . the fish will still be caught, they will just be caught by different people.''

Stevens is also the secretary of the Umkontho we Sizwe Veterans' Association.

Fisheries expert Shaheen Moola criticised the department's leadership, including Joemat-Petterssen, saying that politically motivated policies, cronyism and poor leadership had done irreparable harm to fisheries.

"In the last 20 months we haven't had any patrol vessels at sea and that has cost us billions because poachers have had free rein over our fish stocks.

"South Africa is the only country in the world with an 'open ocean' policy because we have no patrols in our economic exclusive zone," said Moola.

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