Tension on the beach

2011-07-04 00:00

AMID all the sensation and excitement that occurs during the annual sardine run, the mass ocean migration has brought with it the perennial tension between fishermen and curious spectators. This was highlighted this week by various incidents that landed locals in hospital or left them with injuries, according to a local fisherman.

“This is a serious business that we spend months preparing for,” said sardine seine fisherman Glen Poole, who has been fishing the South Coast for the past 22 years. There are only 16 sardine seine netting licences available for fisherman operating in the Hibiscus Coast Municipality (HCM) and applicants undergo an arduous process with the Agriculture and Environmental Affairs Department in Cape Town in order to get these licences. “There is a rating system and each year we get scored, so we have to adhere to the strict criteria if we want to continue the following year,” he said. “It costs a lot of money, too. It’s about R1 000 for the permit, R600 for the vessel licence and R500 for the beach driving permit. You will never get rich being a fisherman.”

HCM beach manager Anton Botha said that once fishermen are granted their sardine seine net licence they are given a written contract that details all the strict conditions under which they can operate. For example, on Margate’s Blue Flag beach “vehicles [are] to enter from the old De Wets Caravan Park side at the end of St. Andrews Avenue and NOT between Santana and Sun tide Flats as done traditionally. No vehicles permitted [sic] are within 150 metres of both Northern and Southern rock points, as these are both Blue Flag areas. Liaise with lifeguards for possible relaxation of the 150 metres.”

Poole said the sardine run takes its toll on fishermen. Since the sardine run started last week several people have come into harm’s way. “The public don’t realise the danger they’re in by being so close to us,” he said. “Last Tuesday, a net snapped and a guy was pulled under water for about a minute. A boat flipped the other day and four nets were lost. There’s also a fisherman who is in a serious condition after a cable broke and flew into his face. He’s not doing too well.

“We rely on these sardines for our survival in the industry as they are our bonus income,” he said. “It’s not easy catching them and it is even more difficult selling them. We sometimes only get R50 a crate and in good times we get R700 a crate, so every sardine counts.

“It’s also illegal to dump sardines once they are caught, so we end up selling them at really low prices.”

Nets cost up to R50 000, so when the public try tamper with them fishermen are often provoked and violent scenes erupt.

“Last year in Durban, there were people cutting nets so they could grab a few sardines,” said Poole. “That’s when you see tempers flare.”

Poole admits that he sometimes gets caught up in protecting his catch.

“It gets quite intimidating out there and I once saw this businessman dressed in his suit grabbing sardines out of my net. I walked up to him and stuffed some sardines down his shirt, which he didn’t like that much.

“Sometimes I will swing my pole around the catch area and warn bystanders not to come any closer or else they’ll get hit.”

The fishermen want the public to realise that this is a serious business that brings them much-needed income, while it is also a dangerous activity that can land spectators in peril. The public wants the fishermen to know that they have every right to be on the beach and that the sardines that beach themselves are a “gift from God” and are therefore free for all to help themselves to.

Senior members of public, like Ugu South Coast Tourism CEO Michael Bertram and Fever Group editor Johan Pretorius, say everyone has a right to witness the natural phenomenon. However, they acknowledge that the public needs to be educated about the seine netters and the risks they face getting close to the action. “If the seine netters are caught in violent acts, trying to protect their catch, then they will not get their licence renewed the following year, so they need to be careful not to overreact,” said Bertram. “Everyone has a right to this spectacle, but there definitely needs to be more education. Tourism is keen to assist if necessary.”

Pretorius has been at the coal-face of this annual debate as editor of South Coast Fever. “Every year we see two groups of readers: the ones who believe this is a gift from God and those who believe the fishermen should be left to their trade,” he said.

He said that although the fishermen’s use of seine nets results in the sardines beaching, the fish would have merely beached a few kilometres down had there been no netters. “The fishermen should respect the rights of the public to take their share of sardines,” he said.

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