Fisheries fleet in Parliament spotlight

2012-11-06 17:37
(Ian Shiffman)

(Ian Shiffman)

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Cape Town - The state of the fisheries marine research ship RS Africana came under scrutiny at Parliament on Tuesday after it was towed into Simon's Town at the weekend.

The 30-year-old vessel broke down off False Bay on Sunday, with water in its fuel. At the time, it was two weeks into an important survey of pelagic fish stocks.

The SA Navy took over the management of the fisheries fleet from 1 April this year, after the department's long-running contract with Smit Amandla Marine to manage and operate the seven vessels was halted by Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

An investigation into that contract is currently underway.

Briefing members of the agriculture, forestry and fisheries portfolio committee on Tuesday, the SA Navy's chief director for maritime strategy, Rear-Admiral Bernhard Teuteberg, tabled a document showing the navy had spent over R16m on repairs to the vessels up to September.

These costs were "in terms of operating, HR [human resources] and repair", he told MPs.

'Excellent' condition

His colleague, Rear-Admiral Bubele Mhlana, detailed the repairs and maintenance the naval dockyard had carried out to the Africana over the six-month period, including the refurbishment or replacement of numerous valves and seals and other equipment.

Earlier this week, the navy said the poor condition of the fisheries research and patrol vessels meant it had resulted in it taking six months to bring them up to scratch.

At a media briefing in Simon's Town on Monday, Mhlana was reported as saying that prior to the navy taking over management of the vessels, the department had told the navy that the vessels were seaworthy and in excellent condition.

"But when we received them, the meaning of 'excellent condition' was then under question," he said at the time.
Committee chairperson Mlungisi Johnson said someone had to take responsibility for the navy's repair and maintenance bill.


On the Africana, he questioned fisheries officials on the service agreement that it - and the department of environmental affairs before it - had with Smit Amandla Marine.

Referring to an inspection of the vessel by committee members earlier this year, he asked: "Is there any recourse on Smit Amandla? Because you have a vessel here that has seriously been ruined, and somebody has to take responsibility."

Costs had been incurred by the navy that had to be passed over to somebody.

"You have somebody who [has] made use of your asset, and taken no responsibility at all on any depreciation that could have been incurred, whether out of malice, or wear and tear," Johnson said.

Later, he added: "Smit Amandla cannot get away with murder. Here is a boat that has been run down to a point where nobody takes responsibility, but some taxpayers' money must be used to repair [it] and nobody takes any responsibility in that regard."


Responding, chief director for fisheries research Johann Augustyn said the service agreement with that company had included all aspects of maintenance.

"There were definitely clauses about following the manuals on the vessels that indicated what maintenance had to be carried out, and when."

All the vessels in the fisheries fleet had been checked "from time to time" by marine surveyors, who had also looked into whether maintenance was done.

"They are supposed to check everything... They then certify whether the vessel is seaworthy, or not, based on that. That was always done, with all the vessels."

Augustyn said the Africana was an old vessel and "more and more things" had started going wrong.

"But at the time when the surveys were done, the vessels were always in order. So as far as we at [the department] were concerned, the vessels met the standards because the surveyors had certified they were in a good condition...

"The message we were getting is that these vessels were not in a bad state, particularly Africana... The vessel was in class, and certified to be seaworthy," he said.


Fisheries' plans to "outsource" the management of the vessels when the current agreement with the navy expires at the end of March next year, came under strong criticism from MPs.

According to a document tabled by the department at the briefing, "a new tender process for the management of the... fleet is underway".

But in the face of the negative response this statement provoked from committee members, acting director-general Sipho Ntombela explained it was only "an option" the department was looking at, and no final decision had been made.

The other option was that the navy continue to manage the fleet.

"It's unfortunate that it came out as if a decision has been taken... Maybe we need to relook at this outsourcing option, because the sense that I get is that it's not favoured."

He would communicate this to Joemat-Pettersson.

However, the department favoured outsourcing.

"From the side of... fisheries, the belief is that the outsourcing option is a better one," Ntombela said.

Returning to sea

On the Africana, Teuteberg told the committee he believed it would be repaired and able to return to sea on Thursday this week.

On the water in its fuel, he explained that the vessel's fuel was pumped from bulk tanks to a so-called ready-use tank, from where it was fed through to the engines.

"Fuel in the bulk tanks does not normally contain water... somehow, between the bulk tanks and the ready-use tank, some seawater [got in]. Whether it was due to a break in the pipe or not, we are investigating at the moment.

"To the best of my [knowledge], the ship will be ready to go back to sea on Thursday to carry on with the survey. We believe we will have solved the problem by then, and we will be at sea," he said.

The department said the interruption of its pelagic fish stocks survey was unlikely to affect total allowable catch allocations.

Johnson called for a copy of the service agreement government had with Smit Amandla; an estimate of the cost of repairs to fisheries vessels, undertaken by the SA Navy; and, for further discussion on who should be responsible for these costs.

It is understood these would be on the agenda at the committee's next meeting, set for Tuesday next week.

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