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South Africa Takes Urgent Steps to Avert Fishery Collapse

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Some linefish stocks have dropped to such low levels along South Africa's coast that the country's government is taking emergency steps to rebuild them.


Legal measures that come into effect over the next few months are aimed at substantially reducing commercial and recreational linefishing—the practice of catching fish with a hook and line.

The crisis, explains Marc Griffiths, head of South Africa's linefish department, has its origins in a time when it was thought there were so many fish in the sea they could never be over harvested.

Even when over harvesting was realized, attempts at stock assessments fixed on trawl fish species like hake, pilchards, and anchovies. Few thought linefish, the species caught mainly with hook and line, could become endangered.

Though linefishing includes a substantial recreational sector, this sector was left out of previous studies, which tended to focus mainly on commercial exploitation. It is only now—people are beginning to understand the true economics of sea fishing—that attention is being given to linefishing.

Linefish are Vulnerable

Factors making linefish vulnerable to over harvesting include their tendency to keep to specific areas, which makes them easy to locate, and their slow growth and long lifespan, with some living up to 20 years and more.

Catch restrictions, first imposed in 1985, were soon found to be overly generous. Stock estimates were based on subjective perceptions rather than quantitative evaluations using biological studies. Compromises made under pressure from strong fishing lobbies and weak law enforcement contributed to the inefficiency of steps taken.

The emergency measures now coming into effect are being taken in terms of the Marine Living Resources Act that the country's legislature adopted in 1998. The act requires that ecological assessments be used in addition to historic catch trends to estimate stock levels and to prepare management plans for each species.

Species Under Serious Threat

Through application of these stipulations it was discovered that at least 20 linefish species were already under serious threat. The list could grow as more information becomes available.

Griffiths said the loss of South Africa's linefish could be called an ecological disaster.

"Internationally, several marine species have, over the ages, been fished to extinction," said Griffiths. "What is alarming is that some linefish have already reached the stage of being commercially extinct."

It is not only that some linefish stocks have dropped to between 2 percent and 10 percent of what they used to be, he said. "Many are important predators, and chances are that their depletion have caused damage further down the ecological chain. So this aspect, too, we are now looking at."

A Livelihood Under Threat

South Africa has a coastline of about 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometer) and one of the highest coastal human population densities in Africa. The cold Benguela Current coursing up the Atlantic coast and the warm Agulhas Current coming down the Indian Ocean coast provide a highly diverse and abundant marine life.

Linefishing provides employment and recreation to thousands and contributes significantly to the economies of the country's four coastal provinces. Thus the socio-economic impact of the emergency measures are expected to be considerable.

The impact on family incomes may be softened, however, as most of the commercial operators that will be prevented from linefishing are those who operate on a part-time basis and have other incomes.

The Department of Environmental Affairs has launched a major campaign to make people understand the gravity of the crisis.

The department will drive home the message that noncompliance with the regulations, such as catching undersized fish and exceeding daily bag limits, is tantamount to stealing from fellow anglers and from future generations.

To enforce the measures, national government inspectors will work with provincial and local governments to patrol the coast and inspect fish landing points. The government will be assisted by the South African Navy.

South African journalist Leon Marshall is a regular contributor to National Geographic News.

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