Anchoring small-scale fishers’ rights in South Africa: Our ocean commons for a just future

Taryn Pereira, Jackie Sunde and Merle Sowman

The Coastal Justice Network organised a National Workshop for small-scale fishers in Gqeberha, South Africa, on 25-26th October 2023,  to support small-scale fisher leaders in engaging on issues pertaining to the Ocean Economy Master Plan and Marine Spatial Planning and defending their rights as a sector in these processes.

Illustration: Dylan McGarry – co-designed with Jackie Sunde to represent the theme of the SSF national workshop ‘Anchoring small-scale fishers’ rights: our ocean commons for a just future’.

The organisation of the workshop was led by Jackie Sunde and Merle Sowman from University of Cape Town, Department of Environmental and Geographical Science (UCT EGS), in collaboration with Buhle Francis, Taryn Pereira and Dylan McGarry from Rhodes University Environmental Learning Research Centre (ELRC), Irna Senekal from Nelson Mandela University Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training – (CIPSET), and Kira Erwin from Durban University of Technology (DUT). It built on three Regional Workshops that were held earlier in 2023, focusing on these policy processes. This workshop was intended as a space to enable leaders to articulate a national position and speak with one voice on relevant aspects of these policy processes. 

There were 35 fisher participants present,  from all four coastal provinces. There were also 20 civil society and researcher participants, from a range of organisations that work in support of small scale fishers, including Legal Resources Centre and Natural Justice who are formal Hub partners, as well as Masifundise Development Trust, Green Connection, and the NMU Law Clinic. 

Group Photo, SSF National workshop, Gqeberha, 26 October 2023.
Key outcomes

This was a rich and productive workshop, with many important outcomes and messages, which Coastal Justice Network (CJN) researchers will now work with to develop resources that can be used by small scale fishers in their policy engagements and in their own decision making processes. Some of the messages are summarised below, and in this video. A full report of the workshop can be found here.

What makes us unique?

Although we are referred to as small-scale fishers, we make a unique and important contribution to the economy and society – we are NOT small.

  • We are traditional fishers. Fishing is in our blood, its an intergenerational practice.
  • We are custodians of the ocean. We respect the ocean. We put people before profits.
  • We are the people that work the ocean and know it.
  • We were born fishing, we  grew up with fishing, it is part of our culture.
  • The sea is sacred; and it also has spiritual importance to us. 
  • We are dependent on marine resources for food and livelihoods – for our survival. 
  • We know when and where to fish and how to manage resources. This knowledge is unique to us. 
  • We are activists and we have our own rules to ensure sustainable practices. 
  • We are able to adapt to a changing ocean context, our practices are adaptive.  
What Special Rights do we have/require? 
  • We are rights holders, not just stakeholders.
  • We have rights to a clean and healthy environment, and to practice our culture.
  • We have a right to work (to pursue our livelihoods), and to food security.
  • We have rights to specific areas where we may fish but the Minister needs to declare them. 
  • We want no commercial fishing in traditional SSF zones.
  • We have rights to be consulted. There must be no decisions for us without us. 
  • We have a right to co-management and it must be fast-tracked. 
  • We are citizen scientists and should contribute to management and decision-making.
  • We demand restitution of our rights to land and marine resources. 
  • We need development that is good for fishers and the environment. 
  • The diverse traditional beliefs and values of fishers must be accommodated. 
  • We want preferential access to marine resources
  • MPAs must be accessible to SSFs and we must be part of MPA expansion processes. 
  • We need flexibility in terms of fishing areas especially because of climate change. 
  • We want our customary rights, we want our fishing rights, we want our human rights!
Key urgent priorities:
  • Recognition as customary and traditional knowledge holders and custodians of the ocean;
  • Representation: We want an organised collective to represent us at provincial and national level;
  • Co-management: We want the ocean to be managed for LIFE and not profit. We want to be actively involved to ensure a responsive relationship between policy, regulation and implementation. We want co-management that involves us in the management of MPAs

One of the key outcomes of the workshop was a strongly articulated desire to build solidarity and organise a national-level organisation that can represent the fishers.

The way forward

An important part of the conference process has been the feedback to fisher participant’s’ own communities and to the larger community of small-scale fishers linked in to CJN Whatsapp group, to Coastal Links and to our partners’ networks.

Taryn, Anna James, Irna and Dylan summarised the workshop report and key messages in a series of accessible graphics which Taryn and Buhle then shared via social media with fishers, including detailed translation through voice messages in isiXhosa.

Fishers who were not able to be present have engaged with these statements and contributed to further discussion on these issues

At the request of the fishers, CJN researchers will now work with the statements emerging from the conference to develop resources that can be used by small-scale fishers in their policy engagements and in their own decision making processes. It is anticipated that these resources will be a lasting legacy for the small-scale fishers and coastal communities with whom One Ocean Hub has worked over the past five years.