Horse mackerel 'experiment' off the menu, says court

06 November 2016 - 02:00 By BOBBY JORDAN

Horse mackerel are off the hook - for now.

The High Court in Cape Town has scuppered a state-led plan to feed 8,000 tons of the fast-disappearing fish to the rural poor.

The move follows the government's withdrawal late last month from a legal dispute with fishing industry stakeholders, who claim the experiment was a thinly veiled attempt to enrich Hermanus businessman James Booi.

The Sunday Times revealed details of Booi's permit after it was issued contrary to protocol and against the counsel of government scientific advisers.

It emerged that the "experiment" involved an Icelandic factory trawler that could have netted Booi a substantial profit, despite concern about a decline in the horse mackerel catch.

Under a court order signed by all parties last week, Booi's experimental permit has been set aside. The state must pay half the industry's legal costs, estimated at around R400,000.

The amount is small fry compared with the estimated R100-million landed value of Booi's horse mackerel windfall, and it is unclear whether he will seek compensation. He did not respond to queries.

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Industry associations welcomed the court order. "We felt from the start that we had a strong case, but we are glad that it did not have to go to the review," said Johann Augustyn, secretary of the South African Deep Sea Trawling Industry Association.

Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Senzeni Zokwana had backed the experiment, claiming it was aimed partly at transforming the "lily-white" fishing industry.

His comments were criticised by industry stakeholders, who said a scientific experiment was not the place for transformation. The industry also claims to be one of the most transformed sectors of the economy, at over 60% black-owned.

Portfolio committee member Zelda Jongbloed, the DA fisheries spokeswoman, said she would oppose Zokwana's reported intention to rework the application next year.

Booi previously said he hoped to channel horse mackerel into state hospitals, prisons and schools, and also make the fish available to rural communities.

Zokwana's spokesperson Bomikazi Molapo said the Minister remained committed to Booi's experiment, which would be implemented next year.

She said court order constitued a temporary delay that would allow officials more time to prepare: "Because the Minister remains committed to fluffing the commitment to see out and give effect to the proposed horse mackerel experiment (including definitely determining whether our fishery can be expanded to the West Coast), the Minister will be proceeding with the implementation of the horse mackerel experiment in 2017," Molapo said. 

"The Minister does wish to confirm and emphasise his ongoing commitment to pursuing the socio-economic horse mackerel experiment in 2017 and until such time as the Fisheries Management Branch is able to confidently determine the viability of harvesting horse mackerel on the South African west coast in terms of a potentially expanded commercial horse mackerel fishery and the extent of domestic appetite for horse mackerel consumption in poor coastal and inland rural areas."

"Further, the Minister remains committed to restructuring the horse mackerel industry in accordance with the stated 2005 horse mackerel policy objective which sought to ensure local processing and sale of horse mackerel as opposed to the ongoing practice of exporting our entire quota without local job creation and beneficiation," Molapo said.