Skip to content

Going Green

Fishing for Food

by Michelle Simon 18 Jul 2011
Fishing for Food

Fishing for Food is a Human Right! The denial of access to the subsistence fishing spots by the Durban authorities has impacted gravely on lives of Durban's subsistence fishers, a definitive case of 'The Inequality of Survival'.

The plight of the fisher-folk in Durban (South Africa), their struggles against the state-corporate restrictions and denied access to their 'hunting-gathering' food spots forms the basis of this story. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened in the context of neo-liberal economic agendas, exacerbating hunger and the battle to survive in the Urban Jungle, where natural food resources are limited, not free and finding natural 'hunting-gathering grounds' with 'free food', extremely rare. One of those few natural hunting grounds for survival food has for decades been the Durban Harbour and its Piers, which have since been closed off to subsistence fisher-folk.

A battle for food against players with high profile power and socio-economic status is truly unfair; the subsistence fishers have to take on a centre of wealth and power, the National Ports Authority. The extreme polarity of the fishers and big business-industry sets the basis for an unfair battle, the former struggling for basic resources such as food, water and shelter and the latter having all the wealth resources to restrict, deny access and criminalise legitimate poverty struggles.

This article is part of the script excerpt from the activist film 'Baited: Fishing for Food', which is based on subsistence fishing rights and the 'Inequality of Survival' set in Durban, South Africa, with several layers delving into historical traditions, untold 'Voyages of Discovery' that predate colonial 'truth', overfishing versus fishing for food, green fishing, biodiversity, environmental protection, corporate power, poverty, human rights, parallel inequities from apartheid to post.

In 1953, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, allowed for the reservation of municipal grounds for a particular race, creating amongst other things - separate beaches, buses, hospitals, schools and universities. During the Apartheid Era, fishing like all socio-political sectors was controlled by and for the benefit of the white minority where racial quotas were applied. The Piers were also racially segregated into numbered zones with White Fishers getting access to the best fishing zones.

The economic and social inequalities from apartheid are still being perpetuated with a playing field that is still dominated by white commercial fishers and the fronting of black tokens by international trawling fish companies further veils the truth behind the inequality.

The Group Areas Act forced the relocation of South African-Indian-Descendents farther away from their traditional fishing grounds, 30 km in Townships such as Chatsworth. In 1953, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, allowed for the reservation of municipal grounds for a particular race, creating amongst other things - separate beaches, buses, hospitals, schools and universities.

Ex-Indentured Labourers started gardening, hawking and fishing to earn a living. Fishers fighting for their rights in present day South Africa have descended from indentured labourers. Some of whom stayed in the Point, Barracks, Salisburg Island, Fynnlands/Bluff.

The 1950 Group Areas broke the close knit fishing community. So, traditional fishing was destroyed and reduced to a few.

Slave Trade

During the years of slavery, slaves were brought in from Indonesia, Madagascar, Somalia and India. Many farmers engaged in slave labour and when slavery was abolished in 1833 by the British, this angered farmers and ignited the Great Trek.

Indian Indenture

Due to the continued disputes with the locals, from the 1860 indentured labourers were brought in to serve the labour needs in the sugar plantations. However, Indian entry into South Africa, happened by misfortune when slaver-ships rounding the coast were shipwrecked. Survivors, both slave masters and slaves were integrated into indigenous groups. Indian slaves were also integrated and this predates Indenture, making Indian slaves the first Indians to arrive on the coast, just one of many hidden histories in South Africa.

Durban Bay's Industrialisation

The Natal Bay was once thriving ecologically with abundant wildlife such as lions and elephants roaming freely.

After World War II Durban boomed into an Industrial Hub, people were moved to Bayside.

Durban was referred to as "The Factory in a Garden" as the industrial dream was pursued. Durban was seen to offer industrialists an abundant supply of coal, water, labour and manufacturing land, the Harbour being the hub as trading port and industrial site. This provided the impetus for Durban's rampant industrialisation at the expense of traditional livelihoods and the natural environment.

The Island View Tank Farm or Cutler Complex is one of the most toxic and hazardous storage facilities and the largest of its kind in Southern Africa with over 190 individual corporations spread out along the harbour. The Harbour's industrial complex makes one of the most sensitive ecological zones a pollution hotspot with water and air pollution, resulting in recent Harbour Fish Kill in 2007, several toxic clouds of gas impacting on adjacent residents in Bluff and the 2007 tank explosion leading to evacuations of residents.

Image Credit: Michelle Simon

While the poor subsistence fishers are closed off from the food grounds, some of the most toxic polluters are allowed to operate unabated not only killing off fish species and other marine life but creating a constant stream of toxins which bioaccumulation in the fat cells of fish and are passed down the food chain. So the legacy of pollution is passed onto the poor who can't literary afford to deal with the medical costs of poor health from pollution but fishing is the only free food source.

The Durban Port Authority had been criminalising the desperate subsistence fishing without alternatives to the poor, which have left families starving. The whole human rights agenda and the constitutionality of the 'Right to Food' and the right to dignity come to the fore.

In addition, toxic pollution being spewed out unabated within the jurisdiction of the Durban Ports Authority by the very big businesses within their perimeters causing severe impacts to the water quality within the harbour and the Indian Ocean; affecting aquatic species both floral and faunal and leading to a range of impacts, condoned by the default non-action and penalisation by the corporate sector and the state. These double standards make no sense when the poor fishers are criminalised and policed with such brutal force in access and removal.

Survival Costs

A critical question posed is how does one define subsistence versus commercial? Can the sale of the portion daily fish catch by the poor to fund other survival costs such as water bill, rent, other daily survival resources such as milk, bread, rice, vegetables, hygiene items be regarded as commercial sale?

Fish translates into water, food and electricity. When there is no cash, people catch fish to sell or barter for other goods and services. Fish pays for water, rice, milk, electricity to cook. Fish provides a pure food source but also provides income to buy water to survive.

The Authorities response to the plight of the fishers is in fact the criminalising the legitimate search for food.

The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, states that the right to food is not an option but a moral and legal obligation for States. States have to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food. If a state puts in place excessive taxes on fish trade, it could severely diminish the income of subsistence fishers and affect their economic accessibility for purchasing food. This equates to the direct violation of the 'Right to Food' of subsistence fishers. From ancient times, fish has been an important source of protein food. Those who harvest fish cannot live on fish alone. Fish has been relished for centuries being an important component of food for both the rich and poor.

Food Security

The World Food Summit in 1996 assessed the number of undernourished people in developing countries to be about 800 million and targeted to halve this number by 2015.

"..guarantee that policies on food security, food and agricultural trade and general trade contributes to the development of food security for all concerned through a system of fair.. trade."


Recreational fishing permits have increased between 195% - 489%, which has outraged fishers.

The whole status or lack thereof, of subsistence urban fisher-folk in the Marine Living Resources Act which only addresses traditional-rural subsistence fishers. Urban Jungle Subsistence cannot be lumped with rural subsistence, whilst both role-players are subsistence fishers they live in totally differentiated geo-social landscapes even though the basic struggle entails the search and access for marine food, their spatial struggles are indeed indifferent

Fishing for Profits - Big Business, National Port Authority and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife

So, who's getting the fish and is access regulated equitably?

The restrictions, control and the inequality in the application of fishing regulation is an unjust case with huge fish companies/trawlers overfishing while the regulators enforce a strict clamp down on subsistence fishers. Unregulated and Illegal Fishing in South African waters is estimated at R 6 billion per annum.


In SA, IUU was blamed for the collapse in traditional line fishery, abalone and Patagonian fish stocks. It is estimated that fish stolenby poaching abalone, Patagonian toothfish, hake, small pelagic, shark in SA waters may be as high as R6 billion annually.

For as long as poachers have buyers, they will continue to engage in illegal practices. Enforcement is therefore critical.

Local fish companies sell their quotas to other fishing outfits.

Green Fishing versus Commercial Overfishing; Climate Change

The ocean was once thought to have an infinite bounty of fish stock and so humans have irresponsibly depleted some species. Species like salmon and tuna have already been overfishing. Overfishing not only impacts on a species but on the entire aquatic food chain and marine ecosystem. Together with horrific commercial fishing methods the ecological diversity of the ocean are being decimated daily.

Methods of Fishing

Fishing is an activity of catching fish and other marine animals such as molluscs (shellfish, squid, and octopus) through hand gathering, spearing, netting, angling and trapping.

The common methods of fishing are:

Hook & Line - the use of rod, reel and hooks from shore-angling, to boats and ski-boats.

Long lines - a major industrial fishing method, a main line with hundreds of baited hooks. Longlines also have a high bycatch and threaten the survival of many shark species. Longlines have been described as 'Curtains of Death'.

Seine netting - large nets to encircle shoals of fish.

Trawling - is a dragging method most widely used by industry and causing immense damage to the ocean. It entails the dragging of large nets across the seabed or through the water to catch fish like hake, sole, prawns. Bottom-trawling being the most devastating.

The problem as with most net methods is bycatch, which is the catching of non-target species. The bycatch impact from trawling is extremely high with species such as turtles, sharks, whales, dolphins, seabirds falling victim at a rate of over 70%. Bycatch species or non-target species are killed and discarded or left bleeding to death. So both target and non-target species are declining due fishing gear entanglement.

The drag also damages sensitive habitats such as coral reefs and sea mounts.

The WWF and Department of Environmental Affairs through their South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative to enable citizens to become conscious about the fish species they eat with the aim of reducing the impact on threatened overfished species.

The SSASI list is divided into:

Green Species - these are healthy population levels and regarded as sustainable fish species.

Orange Species - these may only be legally sold by registered commercial fishers and retails. However, caution must be applied with these species.

Red Species - These species are off-bounds and illegal to buy or sell in SA. Some may be subject to recreational permit conditions.

Fish species can only recover if overfishing is regulated strictly so that the species have time to breed and recover in numbers.

The KwaZulu-Natal Subsistence Fishers Forum (KZNSFF) is a grassroots organisation formed by the poor fishers in response to their oppression and access to food. KZNSFF is committed to sustainable fishing and livelihoods but will continue to fight for the Right to Food and their Right to Equality.

Trending Eco-Friendly Clothing

Love My Planet Women's Relaxed Fit Hoodie
Quick Add
Notify me
Notify me
Love My Planet Women's Relaxed Fit Hoodie
Love My Planet women's eco-friendly relaxed fit hoodieSize Guide Centimeters 8 10 12 14 16 18 Bust 84 88 92 97 103 108 Waist 66 70 75 80 85 91 Hips 91 95 99 104 109 116 Bust: Measure around the fullest part of...
Notify me
Notify me