Lockdown threat to KZN small-scale fishers

The struggles of fisherfolk in KwaZulu-Natal have worsened during the Covid-19 lockdown and while they have been allowed to return to the pier, they say it has been difficult to gain access.

The livelihoods of more than 1 200 subsistence and small-scale fishers in KwaZulu-Natal remain under threat amid the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent national lockdown in South Africa.

KZN Fishing Forum chairperson Riaz Khan said the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries had granted fishermen an exemption that allows for small-scale fishing, but that local authorities had been preventing them from fishing. 

“We felt relieved after Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma announced in her speech that small-scale fishermen would be allowed to fish during the lockdown. Immediately after that announcement, we approached the KZN Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries for the special permission to fish along the KZN shores. 

“We had a positive response and we were told we would be able to fish again. Despite this, local authorities have prevented us from fishing. The permits have been deemed fake by our local authorities. I have also been falsely accused and publicly humiliated by the policemen from the Wentworth precinct,” said Khan.

5 May 2020: Abdool Vajeth is a 52-year-old fisherman from Chatsworth, Durban. He said they couldn’t go and fish, even though it was the only way to earn an income.

The KZN Fishing Forum advocates for the rights of subsistence fishers in the province. The group said its members were struggling to make ends meet during the lockdown. The fishers, who largely depend on small-scale fishing for their daily income, have not earned anything since March.

“We survive from what we catch each day. I went from making at least R350 a day to nothing. Meanwhile, I am the sole breadwinner at home with four children. My youngest is eight months and we have been struggling for necessities such as diapers and formula. It’s heartbreaking to watch your family starve,” said Timothy Chinna, 31.

Conflicting regulations

Bilbhadur Prasad, 77, has been a fisherman for 30 years. “We are on our own. The government has cast us aside, even though we are living in extreme poverty. This is our livelihood. We respect the beaches that provide for us, as well as the law. That is why we have all the permits required by DEFF [the department],” said Prasad.

In compliance with the president declaring a national state of disaster on 15 March, the fisheries department released the conditions of operation for the sector during the lockdown on 24 March. The public notice is addressed to all “holders of permits, licences and authorisations issued in terms of the Marine Living Resources Act” and notifies holders that their permits, including those that expired on or after 1 March, have been extended to 23 June. 

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The fishermen have permits for fishing and bait, so they should have been allowed to continue fishing during the lockdown. But the police in KwaZulu-Natal prevented them from doing so. This left members of the KZN Fishing Forum “confused”. 

“We demand more clarity from the government. The fishermen have starved long enough, and they will never be able to recover their lost income. Their lives and their families rely on the fish they bring home. It is unfair that small-scale fishermen are not deemed as essential when they are providing for their families,” said Khan.

‘Give us back our ocean’

Rakesh Anirudh, 39, has sold some of his fishing equipment to support his family. “I’ve sold almost all my fishing equipment so that I can at least put bread on the table. I have been fishing since I was 12. Fishing is all I know to do and although it has its challenges, I have managed to take my children to school and provide food on the table each day through fishing. Being prevented from fishing has created a great amount of uncertainty. We are worried every day, we are living off handouts and neighbours,” he said.

5 May 2020: Rakesh Anirudh has been a fisherman from an early age. He has had to sell some of his fishing equipment to feed his family during the lockdown.

Shabeer Khan, 46, has been a fisherman for at least 21 years. He lives in Crossmoor, Durban, where fishing is a common livelihood. Frustration emanated from Khan as he explained how the fishers’ struggles have worsened during the lockdown. 

“We understand the regulations of the lockdown and we want to highlight that we have no intention of disobeying the law. But it should also be known that we are not doing this as a sport. This is our livelihood. We fish to survive. Fisherfolk often deal with harsh conditions from lack of transportation, recognition from the government and police brutality. Despite this we still pay our dues, our permits and we obey all the laws of the beach from which we fish.

“Fishermen don’t fish at the same place together, naturally we fish metres apart because it’s impossible to fish any other way. Essentially this means social distancing is not an issue for us. We need to be able to fish again. They need to give us back our ocean,” explained Khan.

Stranded and robbed

On day 40 of the national lockdown, the threat of losing their source of income had intensified for the subsistence fishers. More fishers have been raising concerns about their wellbeing during the coronavirus lockdown on social media.

Keegan Jaykaran, 33, said the regulations preventing small-scale fishers from fishing has left them “stranded”.

“The fishing industry is struggling. We can barely make it on ordinary days, but we have just enough to feed our families. We sell what we catch to locals and on bad days, we just eat what we’ve caught. We have not received any food parcels from the government, they don’t even recognise us, yet we’ve been robbed of our only chance of survival.   

The struggle for adequate recognition and support from the government at national and local level continues to suppress the rights of the subsistence fishermen. We remain at the backseat, it’s a classic poor man’s story,” said Jaykaran.

The KZN Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has not responded to queries sent a week ago.

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