Fishing group criticizes South African government’s response to COVID-19

The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent national lockdown in South Africa has exposed the vulnerability of the small-scale fishers, according to Pedro Garcia, the founder and chairperson of the South Africa United Fishing Front (SAUFF).

SAUFF is an organization that promotes the interests of small-scale fishers in the country. The group is petitioning the federal government for urgent help for its members, such as a measure that would allow small-scale fishermen to supply product to government institutions.

SAUFF fishermen have been left without a market following the collapse of the export market for rock lobster, and the state-imposed 21-day lockdown has further impeded the group’s members fro making a living, Garcia said.

“Small-scale fishers would like to supply government institutions such as prisons, hospitals, shelters and other state-funded feeding schemes with our fish,” Garcia said.

The proposal, he said, “would get our fishers back into the business of food production and turning the wheels of our economy.”

Given the fact that state services are currently overstretched and prioritizing the immediate task of dealing with limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the country, SAUFF has proposed an arrangement by which the country’s large commercial fishing companies with extensive national logistic capabilities buy fish from the artisanal fishermen.

 “[They can] pick up the fish from the small-scale fishers, process it, where necessary, and deliver it to the various government institutions,” Garcia said.

The advantage of the proposition, Garcia added “is that by picking up fish from the small-scale fishers and taking it to one central location for processing and then expertly distributed, is that is stops the small-scale fisher from going door-to-door to try and sell their fish.”

That would risk further spread of COVID-19, but fishermen may be forced to resort to such behavior as a means of survival, Garcia said.

However, the deputy director general for fisheries Sue Middleton had said that during the 21-day lockdown period, all harbors will remain closed but liner fishers with fishing rights would be allowed to operate. She said for the small-scale fishers, many of them who do not require licensing permits, the government “cannot do anything during the lockdown period.”

Middleton said the DEFF has negotiated with some commercial fishing companies and fish processors to offer some relief to small-scale fishers by buying fish from them for onward delivery to the market or for processing.

According to Garcia, those negotiations, and the decision by DEFF to negotiate with commercial fishing and fish processing companies on behalf of small fishers in South Africa, placed government at the center of the envisaged partnership between the two groups, yet “the small-scale fishers or representative bodies were not consulted at all.”

“DEFF does not appreciate the exploitative relationship which still exists between large companies and fishing communities,” he said.

For the small fishers in South Africa’s coastal provinces, Garcia said they have to make life-threatening decisions during the period the nation will be in lockdown if no immediate action is taken now that they are in dilemma of “whether to ignore the COVID-19 regulations and do everything in our power to put food on the table or let our families starve to death in order to adhere to the COVID-19 regulations.”

Photo courtesy of Andrea Willmore/Shutterstock


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