The slow squeeze on Port Nolloth’s fishers

The Aukatowa cooperative is struggling to thrive amid the diamond fields of the Northern Cape, as the state-owned mining company Alexkor limits its access to the sea and degrades fishing grounds.

Port Nolloth is a small coastal town about 80km south of the Orange River mouth, in the Richtersveld municipality of the Northern Cape. Originally established as a port through which to move the copper that was mined inland, it experienced a boom with the discovery of diamonds in the 1920s and again later with the start of a commercial fishing industry.

Today, residents earn their living through small-scale fishing, small-scale diamond mining, jobs related to diamond mining or “digging” – informal mining in closed mines. 

Walter Steenkamp is a second-generation fisherman from Port Nolloth. At the age of 48, he has been fishing for 36 years. “I started as a child, with my father, on the seawater. From that time onward, I’ve loved the sea and … everything around the sea,” he says.

When Steenkamp was growing up, the commercial fishing industry in Port Nolloth was thriving. His mother, like many residents, was employed in the factory owned by John Ovenstone. “My mother is still alive today … I don’t have a relationship with [her], because she was working day and night in that factory,” he says, recounting stories of the boats offloading their catches “day and night”. 

“That is what I want back,” says Steenkamp. He, along with other small-scale fishers in the country, fought for 11 years for the government to recognise their rights. In 2018, Port Nolloth became one of the first towns to establish a small-scale fishing cooperative, which would see fishing rights allocated to it. The fishers named the cooperative Aukatowa, a Nama word that translates as “the place where the sea took the old man”.

Aukatowa is plagued by the same problems as other small-scale cooperatives and fishers in towns along the coast, such as annually shrinking rock lobster quotas and difficulties getting their boats registered with the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries. But the biggest problems the cooperative faces arise from Port Nolloth being in a diamond mining area. 

Access to the sea

Morgan Johnson, who has been a fisherman for more than 30 years, says the rock lobsters that the Aukatowa fishers harvest are found closer to the shore than their West Coast counterparts. Their boats have motors that they turn off and lift out of the water when they get to the lobster areas to avoid damaging them. 

It would be ideal to get as close to the lobster grounds as possible by land, as the size of their boats and the unpredictability of the sea, especially close to the shore, make it dangerous to travel long distances on the water. It is also more cost-effective to travel on land.

The fishers approached diamond mining company Alexkor about road access to the coast at the site of a closed mine, but their request was denied.

24 August 2021: Gavin Craythorne, a diamond diver and Zondo commission whistle-blower on corruption at Alexkor, on the beach at Alexander Bay. In the background, excavators load boulders on trucks for building cofferdams.

“I see the potential to drive next to the coast and there must be access for [us] to … harvest crayfish that are on the coast of that mine. It will be cheaper for us than to go by sea,” says Steenkamp. He has been down the road leading from the R382 to the coast and taken out rock lobster there.

The restricted access means that despite being authorised to fish the roughly 80km coastline between Port Nolloth and the Orange River mouth further north, the fishers are unable to fish more than a few kilometres of this stretch.

“We in Port Nolloth live in a box,” says Steenkamp. “We cannot move [around]. When you go 10km [north] of Port Nolloth, it’s diamond mining. When you go 5km [south] of Port Nolloth, it’s diamond mining. Where we used to collect wood for the fire to make food at home, we cannot go there any more. If you go there now you are a criminal, even though you were walking there all the years.” 

Threat to marine life and livelihoods

But the biggest threat to their livelihoods comes from cofferdam mining, which has been taking place in Alexander Bay. As it is practised there, cofferdam mining involves building a large “tidal pool” that stretches out 100m from the shore. Made from sand, the walls are fortified with mafic rock from an inland quarry. Once the cofferdam has been built, the walls keep out the ocean’s raw power and allow the contractor to mine the enclosed area at a rapid pace.

George Nicolaai, a diamond diving contractor who worked for Alexkor for years, says his company was the first to be directly affected by this practice. Diamond divers generally mine for nearshore marine diamonds using pumps on boats or the shore. Nicolaai’s company operated from a boat. 

26 August 2021: Diamond diver George Nicolaai at the Port Nolloth harbour. 

Visibility in the area where he worked is usually poor because of its proximity to the mouth of the Orange River, so the divers depended on the handful of calm days when visibility was good to make their annual income. 

“The initial authority for building cofferdams said that they had to use … beach sand … But then they started armouring the walls because, naturally with sand, the first big storm would wipe it out. So they started armouring with rocks,” says Nicolaai.

He says the waves corrode these quarried inland rocks, creating silt and spreading it. It has filled all the holes in the rocky areas where crayfish thrive, “sanding” them out “so they just got to move on. We can say the good fishing grounds are lost forever … because they can never rehabilitate [those areas].”

25 August 2021: A no-entry sign at the edge of the diamond mining area in Alexander Bay.

A cofferdam was built right next to a section that Nicolaai had been assigned to mine in a diamond-rich area of Block 60 in Alexander Bay. Residue from the rocks also led to poor visibility despite the ideal conditions, and ended up clogging up their equipment. 

“With all our experience, we managed to block our pipes in no time at all. It took us four of the better sea days that we had, at high risk because we slept in the shallows with the boat, trying to undo the pipes,” says Nicolaai. He then alerted the fishers to the danger cofferdam mining posed to their livelihoods.

The fisheries department issued Alexkor RMC JV with a compliance notice on 29 July, instructing it to “cease with further use of mafic rock for the stabilisation of cofferdams”. But diamond divers reported in August that the company was still reinforcing its cofferdam walls with quarried rock.

A luta continua

Small-scale fishers are accustomed to having to fight for long periods of time to have their rights recognised. In the case of the small-scale fishing policy, it took more than a decade. As they depend on stable marine ecosystems for their livelihoods, they are acutely aware that damage to marine environments now can have far-reaching impacts. 

Johnson says he can see changes in the sea. Waves now break where they didn’t previously, in areas where “we normally could go in nicely” and safely. He has also noticed that whales, which are usually calm, seem to be more agitated around their small fishing boats.

5 August 2021: The access point the fishers asked to use to get to their coastal fishing grounds. Alexkor denied their request.

The uncertainty around cofferdam mining possibly continuing, and spreading south towards Port Nolloth, is a serious cause for anxiety among the fishers.

“They are now busy in the north, so they will be getting busy in the south with the same cofferdam story. So, it’s now around the town of the fishing community. What will be left for the fishing community if they destroy everything?” asks Steenkamp.

25 August 2021: A man holds a diamond that had just been found in the palm of his hand.

As the start of the rock lobster season approaches, the fishers have heard rumours that their allocation will be reduced to 5.1 tonnes from 7.1 tonnes.

“It’s nice to be a fisherman,” says Steenkamp, watching the multicoloured buoys that guide boats safely into Port Nolloth’s harbour bob on the calm water. “When you go to sea, you forget every problem you have. But when you return, they all come back.”

1 September 2021: The buoys that guide seafarers safely into Port Nolloth’s harbour.
If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.