Making space for small-scale fishers: developing a community-based fisher mapping methodology in St Helena Bay, South Africa 

Jackie Sunde, Michael Lambrecht and Merle Sowman (April 2024)

A research team from the University of Cape Town has commenced a collaborative, community-based research project with three small-scale fishers (SSF) communities from St Helena Bay on the West Coast of South Africa. The project aimed to develop a methodology that would support fishers in documenting their knowledge and co-creating the information base needed to engage with SSF governance and the recently launched national Marine Spatial Planning process, as well as laying a foundation for developing a local fisheries management plan in future, once SSFs’ customary rights are recognised. 


In 2014 the Voluntary Guidelines for Small-scale Fisheries (hereafter the SSF Guidelines), were adopted, and all parties involved in small-scale fisheries, were urged to recognise small-scale fishers and to address the marginalisation that this sector faces in most parts of the world (FAO 2015, Bennett et al 2020). Central to this recognition was the call to States to enable and support SSF communities to participate in and take responsibility for the management of the resources on which they depend for their well-being and that are traditionally used for their livelihoods. The Guidelines call for SSF participation in “the design, planning and, as appropriate, implementation of management measures, including protected areas, affecting their livelihood options.

Participatory management systems, such as co-management, should be promoted in accordance with national law” (FAO 2015:23).  Yet at the same time as small-scale fishers began enjoying unprecedented support to become involved in the co-management of the resources they depend upon, the management of these resources has become an increasingly complex, plural, multi-level sea of narratives, policies and planning processes that straddle ocean and fisheries governance and impact their lives and livelihoods (Cohen et al 2019, Sowman et al 2023). The global turn to the ocean in search of new development opportunities, known as the Blue Economy, or Blue Growth, is now intersecting with a range of fisheries and conservation policy and management imperatives, generating a plethora of new policy goals and objectives, assumptions, associated tools, and technical guidelines (Sunde et al in prep). 

Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) has gained traction in many countries as both a policy process and a technical tool to manage these many interests in the ocean (Lombard et al 2019, Jentoft et al 2022, Rivers et al 2022), adding complexity to the turbid seascape of governance frameworks within which small-scale fishers find themselves.  In this context SSF are required to develop increasingly sophisticated local fisheries management plans whilst facing heightened surveillance and restrictions on their own access to their traditional fishing grounds and resources (Andrews et al 2021, Cohen et al 2021, Bennett 2021, Jentoft 2021, Okafor-Yarwood et al 2021). 

In response to a need identified by a group of SSFs in South Africa for support in defending their rights against competing interests in the ocean and building their capacity to engage in resource management as envisaged in the Policy for SSF (Adams 2020), a research team from the University of Cape Town, Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, commenced with a collaborative, community-based research project with three SSF communities from St Helena Bay on the West Coast of South Africa in November. This research engagement between the fishers and researchers aimed to develop a methodology that would support fishers in documenting their knowledge and co-creating the information base needed by the SSF to engage with SSF governance and the recently launched national MSP process. It was hoped that this would enable them to defend their rights in this MSP process and the Ocean Economy policy within which MSP is located in South Africa (Masifundise 2017, Lombard et al 2019, Sunde et al in prep).  It would also lay a foundation for developing a local fisheries management plan in future once their rights are recognised.  

Challenges facing small-scale fishers in South Africa in a sea of policies and planning processes. 

For small-scale fishers in South Africa, the timing of this increased push for Marine Spatial Planning and ‘Blue Growth’ with the simultaneous heightened focus on the need to increase marine biodiversity protection, amidst calls for tighter regulation and control overfishing is particularly challenging. Until 2014 small-scale fishers were not legally recognised and faced criminalisation (Sowman et al 2014, Isaacs 2011). Following extensive advocacy activities and litigation, they were finally recognised as a legitimate sector. However, due to lack of political will it has still taken a decade for the Policy for Small-scale Fisheries to be implemented. Less than 20 000 scale fishers have now been legally recognised and are permitted to fish, although they are very tightly regulated and continue to face enormous prejudice and marginalisation (Sowman and Sunde 2022, Sunde and Erwin 2022).

Just as the Policy was starting to gain traction, with hopes that the strong human-rights based approach underpinning the policy would enable a paradigm shift in fisheries governance, the SSFs have been assaulted by a wave of new state planning processes. In 2013 the State launched the Operation Phakisa Ocean Economy Policy which included the fast tracking of oil and gas exploration, the expansion of marine transport infrastructure, industrial aquaculture and 20 new marine protected areas. An Ocean Economy Master Planning process and a separate National MSP process were launched online during the Covid Lockdown period. Both processes ignored the small-scale sector entirely at the outset and only after intensive advocacy from small-scale fishers and their support organisations have these processes slowly started to include the SSF (Sowman et al, in prep 2024).  

The Marine Spatial Planning baseline document published in 2022 that is being used as the starting point for the country’s MSP processes failed to include SSF specific data (DFFE 2022). Most notably, the data that is in the public domain, tends to be narrow, scientific data based on a single species approach to fisheries management, but tells little of the socio-cultural characteristics of the fisheries that are part of the SSF world.   

Mapping for Justice: towards a community-based GIS mapping methodology  

In this context, the authors commenced with a three-year community-based marine planning research process in late 2021. The aim of the research was to implement a collaborative, participatory research project to collect socio-ecological and cultural information and research data using fishers’ knowledge about the socio-ecological system in St Helena Bay to enable fishers to defend their rights in various ocean and fisheries governance processes.  

To avoid the tendency of ‘rendering technical’ (Li 2007), and to explore ways of starting with the fishers’ perspective of their fisheries and local areas and provide space for both the socio-ecological and cultural aspects to be simultaneously described, we recognised the importance of creating opportunities to hear alternative epistemologies and ways of knowing the ocean and of understanding the impact of the dominant perspective on fisheries and how fishers ‘know fish’.  We hoped to develop a more embedded understanding and knowledge of small-scale fisheries that attempts to reflect the socio-ecological and cultural values of the fisheries in novel ways, but in ways that would speak to the dominant spatially orientated technical, mapping approach used by the current MSP process.  We used the term ‘mapping’ broadly from the outset to include all types of documentation of their knowledge, not only spatial representation, and without preconceived ideas of what this mapping would look like (Sunde et al, in prep).  

Towards achieving these objectives, this research has piloted and created an iteratively developed research methodology with diverse processes and methods of data gathering whilst simultaneously consciously creating opportunities to develop the capacities of the participating fisher communities to engage in key planning processes and respond to ad hoc external challenges that arose. These included using their data in litigation and appeal processes against oil and gas exploration, in commenting on environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for mining and  in representing themselves in fisheries governance processes such as OEMP and MSP see here; and here

Following the fisher’s engagement in litigation to defend their fisheries in the face of a seismic survey for oil and gas (Sunde 2022), and in the face of increasing coastal mining threats, a focus on developing a specific methodology to enable the fishers to document their spatial footprint and integrate it with geo-referenced maps emerged. There is growing recognition for the importance of understanding spatial processes in socio-ecological systems for sustainable marine resource management (Cumming et al., 2017, Noble et al., 2019, Lowerre-Barbieri et al., 2019).   

At the beginning of 2023 a spatial mapping strategy was adopted, with the goal of working with a small team of experienced fishers to build on the qualitative mapping data collected from the fishers’ knowledge, and to enable geo-referencing of these fishers’ maps (Sunde et al in prep). The fishers’ first-hand experience of the use of maps and the power over space that they represent in the struggle against extractives in the ocean space spurred the fishers on to engage eagerly in a collaborative GIS mapping process. The methodology for developing GIS maps, adapted the mapping framework from Close and Hall (2006), similarly using an interview-based framework for spatial data collection, but embedded it in the already developed community-based, participatory research process that was underway. Thus, the interviews with 15 individual fishers were able to draw on the relationship already established between the researcher and each fisher, as well as the growing body of shared knowledge of the fishers, to deepen the understanding of the fishers’ ontology, thereby enabling a qualitatively different engagement.   

In each of these interviews the fishers were presented with two laminated geo-referenced maps of St Helena Bay, their fishing area representing different scales of the bay.   

Maps of St Helena Bay, the fishers’ fishing area

Each fisher was presented with the laminated map placed on a flat surface. A researcher then briefly described the aim and methodology of the mapping approach. The fishers were also shown the location of towns, fishing locations, the depth contours, the scale bar, their boat launch site, and town of residence. This allowed the fishers to orientate themselves. The fishers were then asked to think where they catch Cape snoek (Thyrsites atun), Cape bream (Pachymetopon blochii), southern mullet (Chelon richardsonii), and West Coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii). These four species are the most economically important species for fishing households in St Helena bay, according to a household survey. Before the mapping each fisher was also told that they should think carefully about the scale bar and their seaward and landward boundaries of their polygons. Fishers were also told that they can erase any lines they believe are incorrect and to only circle active fishing areas and not to include areas where they are leaving the harbour or driving to a fishing site. Each fisher was given a black marker and a tissue to erase the lines. 

The fishers were asked to draw where they fish for each species separately. Input from the researchers was kept to a minimum.  However, throughout the process the fishers were reminded of the information shared at the beginning related to the scale bar, the polygon boundaries, erasing of incorrect lines and circling of only active fish areas.  

Blending land and seascapes and creating new ways of knowing the Bay 

In the process of supporting the fishers in engaging with the GEO referenced maps, a key strategy was for the researcher to acknowledge the fishers’ unique local knowledge, and to reassure the fisher that the team was interested in his/her way of knowing their Bay and navigating this space. The process followed was that the researcher would ask the fisher to identify their fishing areas, check the scale with the fisher and then probe and record why an area was identified as a ‘good’ or most favourable fishing spot, what the factors were that would make the fisher select that spot on any given day and what the origin of the name of the area was.  The fishers were also asked to identify culturally significant areas.  

Fishers identifying culturally significant areas

These qualitative responses from the probing were recorded manually by the researcher in her own field notes. They yielded an incredibly rich set of data of direct relevance to understanding the plural dimensions of a fisher’s spatial and relational ontology with the species and ecosystem in which they live and work. These fieldnotes reveal that this does not follow the standard, Western scientific concept of mapping and knowing one’s fishing areas. Rather, these fishers have a much richer spectrum of engagement with the space and the species they engage with that merges sea and landscape and straddles a different layer of consciousness – including “following the fish …in your mind….in the stroom (stream),…in the wind” (Fisher no 3, Sunde et al in prep).  

The GIS researcher then analysed and aggregated the data gathered from all the fishers. Each image was georeferenced using GIS software and each fisher’s data was overlaid onto the base map to produce heatmaps which showed the most popular and important fishing areas for each species.

GIS heat maps showing most popular and important fishing areas for each species

At a final community workshop in March 2024 all the fishers engaged with the range of information collected with the fishers over the three-year period.  

The One Ocean Hub team presented the three fisher cooperatives with a Knowledge Action Hub which contains all the spatial and other information gathered with the fishers.  

Fishers expressed their excitement at having these maps of their fishing areas and their eagerness to use these maps to engage with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), to advocate for preferential access to fishing areas and to defend their fisheries, their cultures and livelihoods in the Ocean Economy and MSP processes.  

The One Ocean Hub research team is now preparing two publications that will capture the lessons and insights emerging from this research in the context of the Hub’s aim to track the impacts of the Blue Economy on coastal communities and to develop innovative, human-rights based research methodologies that can respond to current governance challenges.  Sunde et al (in press 2024) reflects on the research process and the methodology that emerged.  The paper discusses the difficulty but importance of ensuring that research processes with SSF strengthen fishers’ capacities for fisheries co-management, whilst simultaneously enabling them to respond to external threats to their rights in a context of cross-sectoral, plural narratives and demands. Sowman et al (in press 2024) provides a critique of South Africa’s Blue Economy initiative and associated processes and argues that the principles of social justice and environmental sustainability have been side-lined in favour of pursuing rapid economic growth. It calls for an inclusive, integrated, environmentally sustainable and socially just approach to ocean planning and governance where coastal communities and their rights, values and priorities are at the centre of planning and decision-making.    

Related SDGs:

  • Zero hunger
  • Good health and well-being
  • Reduced inequality
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Climate action
  • Life below water