This story appears in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
On Cape Town’s western shore, near a big-wave surf spot called Dungeons, is a low, flat island that seals have made their own. They snooze and bellow and nurse pups, and now and then heave themselves into the Atlantic, where snorkelers can join them in their frolics around reefs and through kelp forests. Sunlight sparkles on air bubbles trapped in their fur, and when they somersault and speed away, they trail a champagne wake.
The island lies within the Karbonkelberg Restricted Zone, a “no take” sanctuary inside a much larger protected area that includes most of Cape Town’s coastline. Karbonkelberg is the kind of place where a person, enchanted by whiskery seal faces staring into his own, can feel that all’s well in the oceanic world.
Unless, as I did, he were to look up and notice a line of men toiling up a hillside path with heavy sacks on their backs. Breaking away from the gymnastic seals, I swam to a tiny cove and stepped ashore onto a carpet of discarded abalone shells. They were the size of soup bowls, and they shimmered with nacreous shades of pink and green, like scenes from an aurora. The air was pungent with the stench of seals and rotting kelp. An ibis stalked among the shells, pecking at scraps of abalone guts. I climbed onto a flat-topped boulder that minutes before had been a shellfish abattoir. Here the men had thumbed the meat out of the shells and filled their sacks.
Up from the cove, through a blaze of wildflowers, the steep zigzag path crosses a ridge to the township of Hangberg. Along this track, the “poachers highway,” hundreds of tons of illegal abalone—perlemoen, in Afrikaans—are carried each year. The meat enters a supply chain of middlemen and processors, bound for Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, where abalone is esteemed as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac.
In South Africa abalone is a synonym for failure: of law enforcement, of fisheries management, and of the social contract that underpins sustainable use of the sea. Abalone is a collapsed fishery, and those who poach it are widely reviled as vultures enriching themselves from the last pickings of a dying resource.
But abalone is part of a wider marine tragedy. Stocks of a third of South Africa’s commercially and recreationally caught inshore fish (called linefish, as they are caught primarily with lines) have crashed. In 2000 the government declared a state of emergency and slashed the number of commercial fishing licenses. Yet many stocks remain at perilously low levels—dead fish swimming. Commercial fishing of 40 traditionally important linefish species is prohibited. Even the national fish, a one-foot-long mussel cruncher known as the galjoen, is banned.
In fish-loving, fishing-mad South Africa, the anguish of declining catches and vanishing species is acute. But if there’s a crisis of fish, there’s also a crisis of fishing. Half of South Africa’s subsistence fishing communities are described as food insecure, because the foundation of their livelihood is in jeopardy. Yet in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected president of newly democratic South Africa, his African National Congress party saw fish as a social equalizer and an uplifter of the impoverished. The rainbow nation would offer its marine resources as an egalitarian pot of gold for all.
Initially the prospects for social transformation looked good. Thousands of “historically disadvantaged individuals”—black and coloured (the accepted word in South Africa for people of predominantly European-African descent)—obtained fishing rights. By 2004 more than 60 percent of the commercial fishing quota was in the hands of this group, compared with less than one percent ten years earlier.
But as the linefish emergency showed, the government had invited more guests to the buffet than there was food to feed them. Even worse, an entire category of fishermen had been left off the guest list. The new fisheries policy applied to commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishermen, the last group being those who fish only to eat, not to sell. Small-scale or artisanal fishermen weren’t included. They were neither strictly subsistence nor fully commercial. More important, they thought of themselves as part of fishing communities, not as individual operators. They sought collective rights and communal access to resources, and they found themselves out of step with a quota system based on privatized ownership.
For these small-scale operators, exclusion from the allocation process felt like a stinging reminder of apartheid. And there was an additional source of alienation, something that in a perfect world would be their best friend: marine protected areas (MPAs), those fragments of coast and seabed that are set aside for either partial or total protection from human exploitation.
MPAs are like oases in a desert. Marine life flourishes within each blue haven and spills over into neighboring areas, enhancing catches and sustaining livelihoods. MPAs are considered indispensable for conserving marine life and managing fisheries, and almost every marine nation has signed a United Nations treaty with the goal of protecting ten percent of the world’s oceans by 2020. For many small-scale fishing communities, however, MPAs rub salt in the wounds of inequality—especially if a no-take area lies on the community’s doorstep, as it does at Hangberg, where the Karbonkelberg sanctuary includes all the accessible shoreline for miles.
Hangberg sprawls across the side of a hill overlooking the beach suburb of Hout Bay. Above its rickety shacks and bungalows looms a crag called the Sentinel. The township has become a place of many sentinels. The poachers employ spotters, who watch out for police officers. Police informers are also watching, pimping on the poachers. A proud community has become a shadowland of crime, protest, and defiance.
I walked through Hangberg’s maze of alleys with Donovan van der Heyden, a youth worker, community organizer, and former poacher. Wet suits hung on washing lines, and marijuana smoke drifted over the tin roofs. Van der Heyden, his dreadlocks tucked under a Rastafarian cap, spoke of the community’s long memory of dispossession.
“There’s a lot of anger,” he said. “The community looks back at how much the white fishing industry got from the resource and says, ‘Who’s the poacher here? You had it. You messed it up. Now that we’re claiming our share, we are being blamed for depletion of the resource. But over how many years were you doing the same thing?’
“That’s why I became a so-called poacher. It was my way of making a statement about injustice.”
The community’s feeling of betrayal, he said, sprang from the fact that the government, in its eagerness to open fisheries to new entrants, sidelined bona fide fishermen. “Everyone jumped in—politicians, teachers, lawyers. People quit their professions to get into the industry because it was so open. And now they’ve got a grip, they’re not letting go.”
We stopped beside a hole-in-the-wall grocery shop. Purple-leaved bougainvillea spilled over a razor wire fence, and Henry Adams, a swarthy 56-year-old with tattoos on his forearms, came to the gate to talk. For 17 years he had fished up and down the coasts of Africa. But he can’t survive fishing in his hometown on his legal recreational permits. “They gave quota to people who don’t know the sea,” he said. “So now I must poach. Quota made me illegal.”
Adams is not an abalone diver. He goes after crayfish—kreef. He rows miles in a night to catch them with small hoop nets. If police come, he hides in the “bamboo”—bull kelp with trunks like baseball bats—where outboard motors can’t follow. He has been caught and prosecuted four times. It makes no difference, he said. “I will fish until my dying day, regardless of permits.”
A few streets away we came upon a sleek military-gray inflatable. Some young men were replacing the propellers on its two massive outboards. The boat’s owner came out of a house. He said he wasn’t going to talk to us. To be a successful poacher, he said, you have to “operate like a mouse, softly, quietly.” Then he spent the next 20 minutes denouncing the government’s fisheries policy.
“I thought when the ANC came into power they would take the white people’s large quotas, chop them up into small pieces, and give a piece to each fishing household just to survive,” he said. “But what did they do? They played eenie meenie miney moe. If you didn’t shout loud enough, you didn’t get a quota.”
Fishing communities split into factions—established fishing families on one side, opportunists on the other. “It was divide and rule,” said van der Heyden, himself a fourth-generation fisherman. “The government fostered the individualistic approach, and as a result the resource suffered and the communities suffered.”
If traditional fishermen had been given recognition, he said, they could have worked with the government to set rules for sustainable harvests. Instead, they were bullied and sidelined, and now they feel no sense of ownership. That MPA in their backyard? It’s not theirs, it’s the state’s.
Change is afoot. Communities have begun making the case that closed areas infringe on their constitutional right of access to food. That argument has gained legal and political traction, and pressure is mounting to rezone some MPAs and open no-take areas to fishing.
Marine scientists urge—beg—the government not to do this. If you open one MPA, they say, the rest will fall. Fifty years of fisheries and conservation gains will be wiped out in a matter of months.
It used to be said, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life.” Today a fisheries biologist would add, “But only if you preserve the fish’s spawning population.” Bruce Mann, a marine scientist whose research helped lead to the establishment of South Africa’s largest MPA, Pondoland, in the eastern Cape, explained how protected areas perform that role.
“MPAs function like a bank account,” he told me at the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban. “You invest your money, and you have the security of knowing you’ve always got it there. But you also get some interest—a little bit of spillover you can live off.”
By that logic, fishermen who poach in an MPA are at best squandering their capital, at worst robbing the bank. Why would they do that?
To find out, I drove 80 miles north of Cape Town to Langebaan, a sinuous saltwater lagoon on South Africa’s wave-pounded west coast. Langebaan’s sheltered marshes, sandbars, and turquoise blue shallows are an important fish nursery and refuge and a feeding habitat for hundreds of species of birds, from falcons to flamingos.
Oom (Uncle) Billie Smith took me fishing for harders, the South African mullet. Harders have been netted here since the 1600s. Most are salted and dried to makebokkoms—fish jerky. Oom Billie has fished for them all his life.
A small outboard powered Oom Billie’s heavy open dinghy, or bakkie, across the lagoon to a sheltered spot where he payed out his net. It was a calm day, and he wasn’t confident of much of a catch. He likes to fish when it’s blowing upwards of 35 knots—conditions that keep recreational boats off the water and stir up the bottom, providing food for the fish. After half an hour, he pulled the net in. We had three small harders. Cormorants had taken another two.
That was it for fishing. We motored around the lagoon, and Oom Billie named every rock, point, bay, and reef we passed. I had heard it said that Langebaaners can navigate their lagoon blindfolded. But their world has changed utterly. With a casino at one end and seaside mansions choking the cliffs at the other, Langebaan has become a resort, and the sea a playground for the rich, not a workplace for the poor.
Oom Billie pointed to properties on the Langebaan shorefront that the community had owned before apartheid came. Then a line was drawn—white people to the south, coloured people to the north—and a community was upended.
Now there are lines in the sea. In 1985 an MPA was created, and the lagoon was partitioned into three zones. The fishermen are permitted to cast their nets only in a recreational zone adjacent to the town, which they must share with up to 400 powerboats and an armada of kiteboards and Jet Skis. They say that all this traffic drives schooling harders into the two-thirds of the lagoon where they are not allowed to fish.
To the fishing community, the MPA looks like another kind of forced removal. Not a symbol of promise—nature’s bank, with interest payments for all—but a continuing sentence of exclusion and denial.
I joined a group of fishermen at the home of Solene Smith, a community leader. They were sardined into a strip of shade behind the house, talking and passing a bottle. It was Sunday, drinking day. The firewater flowed, tears flowed, and the fire in their voices flamed. One of them was about to face prosecution for fishing in the restricted zone. He would most likely have his boat and gear confiscated. But this would not stop the fishermen from trespassing to catch mullet. They refuse to accept the legitimacy of the zoning divisions, and they dispute the government’s assessments of fish stocks. By their reckoning, they are not robbing the bank but exerting their rights—not just as customers but as foundation shareholders.
Did the maritime authorities talk to them about zoning, or how best to manage the lagoon? I asked. Did the marine scientists ask them to share their knowledge?“Nooit!” they said. “Never!”
Smith was wearing a sea blue T-shirt with the slogan, “Unite and fight for fishers’ rights.” Solidarity has emboldened the small-scale fishermen, and recent legal victories have strengthened their cause. Courts have upheld the customary rights of traditional fishing communities and required the government to modify its fisheries legislation to allow a community-based approach to managing marine resources.
Many marine scientists view these developments with dismay. “Just as we’re trying to reach conservation targets and open new protected areas, existing MPAs are being put on the chopping block,” Mann told me. He and others have been working on an MPA expansion strategy that aims to have 15 percent of the country’s total marine territory under no-take protection by 2028—“an ambitious goal for any maritime nation,” he said. But under current conditions it is like trying to lay railroad tracks while behind you people are tearing up the rails and selling them for scrap. Even venerable Tsitsikamma, the country’s first marine reserve, created in 1964, is under threat, despite its importance as a population backstop for several linefish species.
“We’ve tried very hard to reduce fishing effort on many of our species because we knew we were fishing them too hard,” Mann went on. “Suddenly now with equity redress we’re putting pressure straight back onto those resources. Yes, people are hurting. They’re hungry and need food. But these fishers will be harvesting what we’ve managed to claw back over four decades, and it’s going to get flattened in a very short time. It’s terribly complicated and emotional.”
For scientists as well as fishermen: The scientists feel sick at the thought of MPAs being opened, and the fishermen feel sick at the thought of them staying closed.
Could cooperative fisheries management—the state working in partnership with the communities—thread the needle between ecological protection and social justice? A new small-scale fisheries policy released by the government in 2012 claims to be a paradigm shift in that direction: governance from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down. The policy will give small-scale fishermen the communal rights they crave, along with preferential access to marine resources. But will it resolve the problem of too many fishermen and too few fish?
Of one thing marine scientists are certain: There will be no fish for tomorrow without protection today. And there is much more to protect. Forty percent of South Africa’s marine and coastal habitats are not represented in the MPA network, and no MPAs have yet been established offshore, in the vast hinterland that has been called the “heart and lungs” of the ocean.
“We cannot do without no-take MPAs,” Mann said. “They are our last resort.” They not only are ecological refuges and fish banks, but they provide benchmarks and baselines as well. They reveal the default settings of the ocean. And they may be the last place to see species that have been harried to the point of extinction.
One such species is red steenbras, a premier game fish that in 2012 was added to the prohibited-catch list. These giant bream were a South African angling institution. Up to six feet long and 150 pounds, capable of severing the fingers of unwary fishermen with their jaws, they were exciting to catch, delicious to eat, and as plentiful as the stars in the southern sky. Now, incredibly, they are almost gone.
I learned that there was a resident red steenbras at Castle Rocks marine reserve, beside the hook of land that is Cape Peninsula, so one morning I went there to look. I knelt on the seafloor while ocean swells swayed the kelp fronds and soft corals like an undersea wind. There were fish everywhere. Cape knifejaw and galjoen flitted through the kelp canopy like birds in a rain forest. Broad-shouldered romans, brick red with spatterings of white, muscled in close, and dainty French madames pecked at the bait I held, as if nibbling a madeleine.
A leopard catshark wriggled under a ledge inches away. I slipped my hands under it and lifted it out. It lay as straight and still as a baguette. I laid it back under the ledge and watched it scuffle away. My dive partner tapped my shoulder and pointed, and here came “Rupert,” finning through the crowd. Red steenbras are now so rare that divers have given them names. Rupert had been named after its species, rupestris.Though not one of the six-footers of yore, it was still an impressive fish, with gleaming bronze flanks and the angular snout of a high-speed train.
If people could just see this, I thought. If politicians, fishermen, and fisheries managers could witness such abundance, they would understand that MPAs are essential for flourishing seas. Alone, they are not enough. Without just policies about who can fish, and where, sustainable fisheries are an illusion. But when fishermen embrace marine protection and decision-makers honor fishing traditions, an old paradox can be solved: having our fish and eating them too.