Fishing communities becoming more poor

Fishing communities are becoming increasingly poor and more vulnerable. And to think it all started the day fishing communities were incorporated into the formal rights allocation system in 1998, when they had to apply for abalone and crayfish rights. This system inadvertently proved to have a negative effect on their livelihood.

Which brings me to my research on the women from the fishing community of Buffeljagsbaai, a rural fishing village 170km from Cape Town. It is a small, extremely vulnerable community of only 300 people.

Shellfish abalone, known locally as “perlie” or perlemoen, is in high demand, particularly from the Far East. Abalone is heavily restricted, but illegal harvesting by organised criminal networks has caused stocks to plummet, dramatically impacting the legal abalone farming industry.Abalone poaching is highly illegal, carrying severe penalties, but the women’s economic dependence and vulnerability means they are regularly exploited by poachers and coerced into engaging in criminal activities, often with disastrous consequences.The level of desperation is high. A lack of alternatives, compounded by the lure of easy money, drives many in the community to participate in illegal poaching activities. Many women in the community have husbands, sons, partners and brothers who are engaged in illegal abalone poaching. Traditional engendered roles consequently entrap these women in supporting these poaching activities by preparing food, cleaning wetsuits, storing catch bags in their freezers and permitting boats to park on their properties.One of the biggest challenges has been the shift from poaching as a small-scale local activity, to the influx of highly organised external gangs and crime syndicates, destroying local livelihoods and increasing fear and despair. There are strong allegations that criminal syndicates have made inroads into local law enforcement, which only adds to the dangers facing the community. Allegations abound of racketeering and corruption from the local level right up to the highest reaches in government. Ask yourself the question: What happens after abalone is confiscated? You will probably come up with some interesting scenarios in your own mind.In my research with PescaDOLUS, an independent research and capacity building network on fisheries crime, I have found that the complex drivers of fisheries crime in this community underscore the importance of a law enforcement approach geared at identifying and prosecuting the organised criminals benefiting from these illegal activities.

Prof. Moenieba Isaacs is an academic and researcher with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at UWC. Her research focus is on understanding the social and political processes of fisheries reform in South Africa. She focuses on small-scale fisheries policy processes and implementation.

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