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The Exclusion of Subsistence Fishers from Public Spaces in Durban

south pier.pngby Amanda Dray and Dianne Scott

Research in the marine environment has historically been the domain of marine scientists. However, more recently, there is a growing body of research that focuses on social issues in the marine environment. This article provides an example of social science research and presents the results of a Masters research project. This project examines the issue of ‘subsistence fishers’ in Durban whose fishing sites are being eroded through various development processes. These traditional fishing sites are the piers and beaches along the Durban coastline as well as various sites around Durban harbour. Over the last 100 years fishers have ‘subsisted’ and earned a livelihood, either full time or part time through fishing. Most of the fishermen interviewed were descendents from the Indian seine-netters and other ex-indentured Indians in Natal who settled in Durban and brought fishing skills with them from India. Today there remains just one seine-netting license at Vetch’s Beach. Most of the fishers are rock and surf, or line fishermen, and still fish today using the skills taught by their forefathers.
The research applies the concepts of ‘public’ and ‘private’ space to examine the decrease in public fishing sites. Public spaces are state-owned resources (land) that ideally belong to all citizens, where people can interact or co-exist freely with those are different from themselves. They are spaces of diversity and people occupy these spaces as the broader ‘public’ in a democratic society. However, research has shown that globally in the current neoliberal capitalist economy, there has been a ‘rolling back of the state’, privatisation of government functions, and cuts in state welfare. The state engages in public-private partnerships with developers to facilitate ‘pro-growth’ development and economic growth often in public spaces.
One of the state resources to come under threat are the coastal public spaces which are being developed to provide spaces for economic activities, particularly for coastal consumer and leisure spaces. An example of this is the proposal to build an exclusive Small Craft Harbour at Vetch’s Beach on the Durban beachfront where the public beach will be transformed into a harbour for the leisure boats of the wealthy. One group affected by this privatisation of space is the poor and marginalised fishers, as they do not fit the profile of the high income consumers for whom the coastal developments are planned.
In this case study, research was focused on a group of ‘subsistence’ fishermen who fish off the piers and beaches along the Durban coastline and around Durban Bay. These fishermen have appropriated the spaces of the piers, harbour and beaches to earn a living over many decades. Public fishing sites are now steadily being closed off to the fishers. During the period of research from 2006-2008, the North and South Piers at the entrance to the Durban Harbour were closed for harbour widening to facilitate economic growth. Durban Bay itself was closed off by the National Ports Authority (NPA) to fishermen due to security issues. Piers along the Durban beachfront are subject to closure during sporting events in the holiday season negatively impacting on the fishers’ lifestyles and livelihoods.
The aim of the study was to therefore investigate the exclusion of subsistence fishers from public space in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. A qualitative methodology was employed and oral evidence collected through interviews with fishermen and other government stakeholders. Respondents were selected purposively and through the snowball method. In addition, workshops, meetings and protests were attended by the researcher and numerous site visits undertaken. A relationship of trust with the fishermen has been formed by the researcher who has assisted the fishers in their struggle to maintain their rights to public space; hence the research can be termed a form of ‘action research’.
The results revealed that the group of fishers have a rich and long history in fishing and that in addition to it being a livelihood, fishing is a source of spiritual fulfilment and culture. The investigation into the historical and current use and value of the public fishing spaces revealed that there was a long family cultural tradition in fishing among the subsistence fishers, that historically fishers lived close to the fishing sites and had easy access to them prior to apartheid. Almost all fishers interviewed had been fishing for more than 20 years and had learned their skills from their forefathers. The culture and tradition of fishing is highly valued.
The evidence suggests that the current use and value of the public fishing sites lies in the livelihood they provide. They are spaces in which strong social bonds are formed and they are the source of identity and lifestyle for the
Aerial photograph showing the common fishing spots along the Durban coastline.
Three groups of male and female fishers were identified. The first group are those that are very poor who are homeless. This group of fishers make use of shelters, the piers, or any sheltered structure near the sea for their homes, and depend entirely on the fish that they catch. The second group of fishers fish when they are out of work. They are either part-time or contract workers and so fishing is a fall-back job when contracts end. The third group are the working poor, such as car guards, who have jobs but supplement their income through fishing. The research showed that today public spaces allow for social interaction between groups and a respect for different cultures emerges from these spaces. These spaces are vibrant, organic places with people of different cultures interacting and socialising through the trade of fishing. The fishers earn their livelihoods in these spaces and fishing contributes to their sense of spirituality, is a stress reliever and gives fulfilment to their lives.
The social impacts that have resulted from privatisation of this space include a loss of strong long standing friendships, a loss of identity associated with the trade of fishing and a loss of a ‘sense of place’. The activity of fishing has been criminalised and many fishers are locked in jail or fined for catching a few fish. Many of the fishers state that they will become homeless and unable to survive. The safety net that has been established through fishing will disappear depriving the fishers of food security. The spaces themselves will become ‘sterile’ spaces, with the disappearance of the vibrancy, life and spontaneity found here today.
The fishermen have opposed these closures through the formation of the KwaZulu-Natal Subsistence Fishermen’s Forum (KZNSF), writing to the relevant authorities, organising protests and opening up a legal case against the National Ports Authority (NPA). Their actions have been well documented in the media, via newspapers and radio, and they have succeeded in mobilising many of the fishers into fighting for their rights as citizens to fish in public space.
The eThekwini Municipality, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (EKZNW) and the NPA have not been supportive of the fishermen’s concerns. The eThekwini Municipality representative interviewed stated that the municipality does not accept that there are a substantial number of subsistence fishermen, and denies that public spaces are being privatised. The law does not include these fishermen in the legal definition of a ‘subsistence fisher’, as they sell part of their catch and are not ‘traditional’ as in the case of traditional fishers at Kosi Bay, and they therefore have no rights. The NPA have refused countless meetings with the KZNSF and have closed the harbour and North and South Piers to the fishermen with minimum consultation, despite protests and a pending legal case. The fishers have thus become ‘invisible’ to the state and through their exclusion from these spaces have effectively been excluded from ‘the public’ and from being citizens of the city of Durban with the associated rights to public spaces being denied. The current Marine Living Resources Act (Act No. 18 of 1998) does not include this group of fishers in the definition of a subsistence fisher. New draft policies for the allocation and management of medium-term rights for subsistence fishers does not apply to these fishermen either as they are still defined as commercial or recreational fishermen.
Therefore through the closure of spaces along the Durban coastline, this group of fishermen are in danger of losing their livelihoods, lifestyles and culture. There is no recognition by the state that the marginalised fishers depend on these public fishing spaces. Recently, many public-private partnerships have emerged which have developed and privatised public spaces to create exclusive public spaces for the elite. For example, the promenade and fore dune in front of the Suncoast Casino. The result is that the local cultures of Durban are being lost to a consumer culture and marginalised cultures are being excluded. The result is a city that is creating more exclusive spaces and thus denying the rights of all its citizens to use public space. The fishermen of Durban are just one such group struggling for their survival and their rights to the city in a democratic, but highly unequal new neoliberal South Africa.
Amanda is based at the School of Environmental Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban

Response from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife

by Craig Mulqueeny
The article describes a complex situation which has arisen over the years along the Durban beachfront but there are many diverse aspects to it and few easy solutions.
Unemployment and poverty are serious challenges to the provincial and national governments and they have developed and implemented multimillion rand schemes specifically aimed at alleviating poverty and creating employment. These schemes have mostly fallen short of their targets and it is this reality which serves as the background and driver of much of the situation described.
True subsistence fishing is not a chosen activity but one carried out to obtain the basics for survival when there are no alternatives. It can produce extra resources, which occasionally may be sold or bartered, but the basic aim is not to sell the resources.
Many communities in KZN have been formally identified, by Ezemvelo and MCM, as containing true “subsistence fishers” and most of these have been formalized with permits issued and the fishing monitored. This has been done as the mission of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is to “ensure effective and sustainable use of KwaZulu Natal’s biodiversity and protected areas in collaboration with the community.” It is the responsibility of Ezemvelo to ensure that all use is not just sustainable but also wise and appropriate.
In almost all cases identified so far there has been a drastic decline over the last few years in the numbers of people carrying out subsistence fishing. This is usually ascribed to the advent of and improvement in social grants which now supply most of the poorest people in the province with much of their basic needs.
Most of the difficulties with subsistence fishing have arisen where there is a blending of true subsistence fishing and commercial interests. Where people really were trying to obtain their basic needs these have now mostly been made available through the grants. Where money is being made from the sale of resources, and where people have been given special access, there is a strong commercial incentive to increase effort.
There are serious challenges due to the sale of resources collected under the “umbrella” of subsistence fishing as many of the resources may not legally be sold and the resources cannot sustain increased use levels. Most of the utilization described in the article is, despite comments in the document, clearly a commercial activity and this is generally accepted as a reality. If any dispensation was to be made for these fishers then it could not be for “subsistence fishing” but for a commercial enterprise.
The fishers described in the article carry out a variety of activities including shove netting, bait pumping, seine netting and rod and line fishing. The first two are carried out exclusively inside Durban harbour and the present world security situation has dictated that such activities may no longer be continued in any commercial harbours. Neither Ezemvelo nor any other provincial authority has input on these decisions which are made at a national level for the national “good”.
Seine netting on the Durban beachfront is still carried out, under permit from MCM, and in theory is exclusively a bait collection and sale operation. Ezemvelo has not interfered with this operation but it is concerned at the high “bycatch” of the fishery where large numbers of shad and other recreational fish are caught but, in theory, released.
The aspect of the fishery with which Ezemvelo has most interaction and conflict is the rod and line anglers along the whole beachfront and on the piers. Certain areas have been closed to these anglers recently but this is not due to the policy or actions of Ezemvelo but the realities of the national security situation and economic drivers and development. It has been decided that developing the economy of the region, including marina development, must proceed in order to build up the economy.

Ezemvelo’s role is to ensure that all fishermen obey the gazetted regulations and that use of living resources is wise and sustainable so that the benefits accruing from this use can continue in perpetuity.
Many anglers, not just those described in the article, fish on the Durban beachfront throughout the year. It is a Mecca for recreational anglers from all the provinces of South Africa and overseas and good catches can still be made from the beaches and piers. Monitoring shows that the most common species caught, accounting for well over half the fish, is shad.
Shad are a ‘recreational” list species which may not be sold in KZN. The reasons for this are simple and sound and it is not just that this is the most important fish in recreational catches. In the past shad stocks all but collapsed, most likely due to overfishing, and very strict remedial action had to be taken. There was serious conflict in the past when Ezemvelo and MCM’s predecessors temporarily stopped shad fishing and then slowly opened it up but under tight control.
At the time there was serious criticism of the authorities for restricting shad fishing but few will now argue that this was not an essential and sound move. There are excellent indications that generally shad stocks, and the anglers, are benefitting from the restrictions. Numbers and sizes of shad have increased in recent years but it is clear that stocks of this species are not unlimited and are very susceptible to overfishing.
To protect fish stocks, regulations are imposed to restrict capture of immature fish, spread the sustainable yield over as many fishers as possible and protect fish during their peak spawning season. In the light of the latest scientific evidence the shad restrictions were revised, in April 2006 by government gazette, to capturing a maximum of four shad daily, each of over thirty centimeters and October and November were closed to fishing as this is the peak breeding season.
To be effective, and indeed to make sense, such restrictions must apply to all anglers. At present the only anglers allowed to catch shad in KZN are subsistence and recreational anglers but they must all obey the same restrictions. The rod and line anglers described in the article presently must buy, for R 60 per year, recreational licenses. The problems arise when these anglers wish to catch more than four shad per day and also to sell their catch. If this was allowed it is highly likely that within a few seasons shad stocks would collapse again, probably to exceptionally low levels. There are extremely serious examples, in KZN, of species which were once very common being driven to economic extinction by overfishing by linefishers. Seventy-four is a species formerly very common and important which has all but disappeared from catches.
Many thousands of visitors come to KZN annually to fish along the shore and shad are the greatest drawcard. This industry is of immense importance to the economy of the province and each shad caught effectively brings in much more revenue than would be obtained from catching and selling the fish. Any marked reduction in shad abundance would undoubtedly impact negatively on tourism.
Scientific evidence shows clearly that there is simply very limited scope to increase shad catches in KZN without causing stock collapse. There is undoubtedly a serious challenge of poverty and unemployment around Durban but clearly the answer is not to increase shad catches as this would have a much wider negative impact on the people, the economy and biodiversity. In short, fishing in KZN is not the answer to poverty and alternatives must be sought elsewhere.
The present regulations have been carefully worked out with regard to the fish stocks and biology and if Ezemvelo is to carry out its mission it must ensure universal compliance with these. The fishers mentioned in the article may continue to catch up to four shad of over the size limit daily and this will help feed their families. To increase the limits, for anyone, would be gross irresponsibility and lead to the longer term disadvantage of everyone. An argument could be drawn up to subsidise the cost of the permit for these anglers but not to exempt them from the permit conditions.
Shad have been used as an example, as it is the most important species, but the principles hold true for the other important species. KZN waters are basically nutrient deficient, compared to the Western Cape, and there is virtually no scope to provide increased fish yields to alleviate poverty. A solution is to further develop tourism, partially based on the well managed fish resources, and through this increase employment, sustainably.
Ezemvelo would be shirking its responsibility if it relaxed compliance work on the beachfront or motivated for changes in the fishing regulations. Cities throughout the world have changed out of all recognition and in the process many people have lost their traditional activities. The answer to one problem must not lead to the creation of a much larger one.
The situation described is a serious social and economic challenge and needs to be addressed as such. It would be wrong, and counterproductive in the longer term, to try and solve this problem by creating another, but different and possibly bigger, challenge.