'Our livelihoods, traditions are under threat' - Langebaan net-fishers

Cape Town – South Africa’s only traditional fishers recognised as fully dependent on net-fishing for survival, are challenging a condition preventing them from accessing part of the Langebaan lagoon on the West Coast.

They feel their livelihoods, and age-old tradition of net-fishing in that area, are at stake.

Fishermen and residents packed the Western Cape High Court on Thursday, as Legal Resources Centre lawyers argued on their behalf.

Ministers, deputy directors general for the fisheries and environmental affairs departments, the SA National Parks (SANParks) and West Coast National Park were respondents.

The men - some commercial rights holders and others with interim relief rights - make a living by catching southern mullet, better known as "harders".

In contention was a condition in their fishing permits and exemptions that kept Zone B of the lagoon off-limits.

The zone had shallow, warm tidal flats rich in fish, according to Norton Dowries, who submitted a founding affidavit on behalf of the community.

The fisheries department did not permit them to fish there due to environmental, conservation and sustainability concerns.

The fishers challenged the scientific foundation and reliability of these concerns.

Advocate Jason Brickhill, for the applicants, raised the fact that three Churchhaven fishermen were still allowed access to Zone B because of an old agreement.

"Coloured net-fishers who depend on their livelihoods are excluded and white land owners are granted access," he told the court.

"It doesn’t matter that the indiscrimination was not malicious or intentional. The question is one of its impact."

Dowries stated they were restricted to fishing in Zone A, where they had to compete with hordes of recreational and net fishers.

Holidaymakers in that zone apparently disturbed fish and damaged their boats and nets.

Dowries believed that heavy ammunition practice at an army base chased fish out of Zone A into Zone B.

All parties agreed it was vital to keep the exclusion area, Zone C, undisturbed, because this was where many fish species bred.

SANParks’s position was that no fishing at all should be allowed in Zone B, and that Zone A should be amended to accommodate the net-fishers at the expense of recreational fishers.

The fisheries department argued that the imposed conditions protected the integrity of the unique ecosystem.
Both departments argued that there was no basis for the court action.

The argument was that the permits and exemptions had expired, and that the fishers recognised that a new rights allocation process was underway.

The applicants wanted an order setting aside the decision to impose the fishing condition. They also wanted an order for engagement between the parties to determine reasonable access to Zone B in future.

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