There’s good news and there’s bad when it comes to the state of South Africa’s linefish and seafood. The bad news is that 79% of our key linefish species are over-exploited or collapsed, with populations of household favourites such as Cape Salmon/Geelbek reduced to 3% of their original abundance and kob/kabeljou reduced to somewhere around 4%. The good news is that some of these key linefish populations are starting to show signs of recovery, notably as a result of a 70% reduction in the number of permits issued in the linefishery sector ten years back.

“Ten years later after these severe measures were taken, our linefish are still a long way from being healthy and recovered but their populations are certainly showing positive trends, and several recent strategies have been implemented to turn the situation around,” says Dr Samantha Petersen, senior manager of the WWF Marine Programme, which includes the Sustainable Fisheries Programme for which the WWF Nedbank Green Trust provided seed-funding. The Sustainable Fisheries Programme is now funded by Pick n Pay.

Restore 50% of over-exploited fish stocks.

One of the programme’s main objectives is to restore at least 50% of all over-exploited fish stocks to sustainably managed levels by 2020, while maintaining or improving the state of other fish stocks. To achieve this, the project addresses the full spectrum of the sustainable seafood chain – from the small-scale fishers to the large commercial fishing companies to the final product delivered to consumers at their local fish shop, supermarket or restaurant.

Responsible Fisheries Alliance

“Large scale industrial fisheries focus on commercially important species such as hake and small pelagic fish (sardine and anchovy) but a number of other fish species are also caught as bycatch,” says Petersen.

To remedy this, the Responsible Fisheries Alliance (an alliance between WWF and four of the largest seafood companies, I&J, Oceana, Viking and Sea Harvest), took the lead a year ago in assessing the percentage of linefish caught as bycatch. From here they catalysed the formation of a Task Team including government officials to develop measures to address the issue, including species specific catch limits (especially for the main linefish species like kob) and the consideration of closing areas to fishing to protect the species. “We are hoping the changes will be implemented by government in January 2012,” says Petersen.

Another good news story from the Responsible Fisheries Alliance (RFA) is the improved effectiveness of their tori lines (bird scaring lines) at the back of their boats to stop seabirds from attacking bait, becoming hooked and subsquently killed. As a result of an RFA led project, the Alliance lobbied for sector-wide regulatory changes in this regard, which happened fast because of the fact that it was industry and WWF lobbying government.

Small-scale commercial fisheries

The Sustainable Fisheries Programme is also about to embark on an exciting project to work closely with small-scale fishers, of which there are about 30 000 in South Africa. “While they don’t catch large amounts of fish by volume, they catch a large variety of inshore resources, many species of which are over-exploited and down to 2-3% of their original populations, including abalone, red steenbras and West Coast rock lobster,” Petersen explains.

“Working with this group is a huge challenge because there are a lot of people, it’s not a cohesive group and the drivers for over-fishing are strong as many of them depend on fish for their survival.”

To address the issues in this sector they are working with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Fair Trade to help bring these fisheries up to the levels of these benchmark standards, in collaboration with partners like Woolworths, Pick n Pay and Spar. “Our aim is to incentivise responsible fishing practices through improved market conditions for the fishers,” she says.

Fair Trade tackles seafood for the first time

The MSC’s standards are based on environmentally sustainable marine practices while Fair Trade focuses on social sustainability with an environmental element. “Fair Trade has never worked in seafood before, their focus to date has been cocoa, sugar and cotton, so this is a new space for them, and we believe that working with these two organisations will offer us the best of both,” says Petersen.

The small-scale fisheries policy was finally gazetted earlier this year after being in draft form for some time. “It’s exciting and concerning at the same time, says Petersen explaining that while it’s a forward-thinking policy in terms of addressing the needs of smallscale and subsistence fishers, it is worrying in that it is very vague in terms of its defintion as to who these fishers are and what resources they will be allocated – these are two fundamental issues.

“We are now awaiting the implementation plan, which should come out in January 2013,” says Petersen. Part of the plan will necessarily require apportioning the inshore resources more equitably. “There is no room for additional pressures on these resources, which are already severely overexploited, and it might mean taking away certain rights from other fishery sectors to give to communities.”

SASSI continues to make positive strides

The highly successful Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (WWF-SASSI) continues to make positive strides. “Pick n Pay became the first retailer to publically commit to transformation of their fisheries, and I&J became the first fishery globally to commit to only selling sustainable seafood,” says Petersen whose team manages WWF-SASSI.

As a result of WWF-SASSI’s work, for example, it is hoped that a major species like kingklip is now on its way from being an Orange-listed fish to becoming Green-listed.

SASSI is also constantly gaining ground in terms of its visibility. In 2010 and 2012 we conducted two demographically representative surveys of over 2000 fish and seafood consumers to determine SASSI awareness,” explains Petersen. “In 2010 only 11% of the target market was aware of SASSI, while this has increased to an encouraging 30% in 2012.”

Prawns continue to pose a problem

Prawns, which are a favourite amongst many seafood consumers, pose a persistent problem because wild-caught prawns are associated with a significant proportion of bycatch (for every 1kg of prawns caught, up to 5kg of bycatch is also caught).

A signficiant percentage of prawns on the South African market are also imported from India.

These prawns are farmed in the mangroves in India, and they are destroying the mangroves, which are a very special and important ecosystem and nursery ground for many fish species.

So what to do as a consumer? “It’s difficult to know from where prawns come; so our advice is to try to reduce your prawn intake and, as with all fish and seafood on the menu in restaurants or at fish shops, ask questions,” says Petersen. “Keep asking from where the fish were sourced. This has been one of the major successes of SASSI because it puts pressure on retailers and restaurants to observe sustainable practices when they know you care.”

SMS the name of the fish to 079-499-8795 and you will receive an instant confirmation of its status.

A nifty ‘Know Your Seafood’ pocket guide can be downloaded from SASSI’s website, as an instant reference to the status of favourite seafoods, and which fits neatly into wallets and purses.

Green-listed species are the ‘Yes’ seafood choices, and the best choices available to us. The fish and seafood species on the green list are from relatively healthy, well-managed populations that can sustain current fishing pressure.

Orange-listed species may be legally sold by registered commercial fishers and retailers, but are either currently over-fished, caught in a manner that is harmful to ocean environments or the species are biologically vulnerable to overfishing.

Red-listed: Don’t buy these species because they are either from unsustainable populations, which have either collapsed and/or of extreme environmental concern and/or lack adequate management, or are illegal to buy or sell in South Africa. The illegal species are either specially protected or “no-sale” species, reserved for recreational fishing only (you need a valid recreational permit to catch them, and must adhere to specific regulations). Find out more about recreational fishing regulations and Marine Protected Areas on the SASSI mobi site at