A mobile app being piloted in South Africa aims to boost the small-scale fishing sector, writes Sarah Wild.

David Shoshola, a traditional fisher in Lamberts Bay, South Africa, holds a list containing 116 names. These are fishers in Lambert’s Bay who have been allocated “interim relief” by the country’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

In 2007, a South African court ordered that marginalised fishers be immediately granted interim relief through access to marine resources. However, government, non-governmental organisations and the community unanimously say that this process has been problematic.

“When you’re looking at a sector that size, you need to use technology that can get information quickly.”

Shoshola says that there are about 50 active fishers on the list, with others selling their allocation to companies or marketers for companies. “This is why interim relief is a mess,” he says.

South Africa’s traditional and artisanal fishers have been consistently marginalised both during apartheid and in democratic South Africa, according to the court ruling. But through a new small-scale fisheries policy, almost nine years in the making, government and researchers are attempting to redress the situation.

Access to data and co-management of South Africa’s resources remain key foundations of the policy. An app for smartphones and tablets that fisher people can download freely —created in partnership with academic institutions, government, civil society and fishers —could be the lynchpin in government’s efforts to roll out a small-scale fishing industry in South Africa.

The app, known as Abalobi which is an isiXhosa word for fisher, will be the information management system for the small-scale fisheries industry, says Craig Smith, director of small-scale fisheries management within the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

In South Africa, living marine resources are allocated through permits, but there have traditionally been only three recognised groups: commercial, recreational and subsistence fishers. “[Traditional fishers] never really got legal rights to fish marine resources in their own name, or in terms of their own right,” Smith says.

Traditional fishers, who straddle the divide between commercial and subsistence, were not recognised until the 2007 ruling, which found that the government — through its failure to recognise this group and allocate appropriate fishing rights to them — had violated their constitutional rights.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the importance of small-scale fisheries “cannot be overemphasised”. “While no definitive statistics exist, it is thought that the sector employs 50 [million] of the world’s 51 million fishers — mostly from developing countries — producing nearly half of world fish production and supplying most of the fish consumed in the developed world,” it says. 

Government officials say the number of these traditional fishers range from 30,000 through to 100,000. But there is no verified data as to how many small-scale fishers are on South Africa’s coastlines, which span four provinces.

A verification module is being included in Abalobi, says Smith. “The verification process is for us to go into the communities … [and] assess whether [people who claim to be fishers] meet the criteria of a small-scale fisher.

“It’s a one-stop shop, right from the [verification] of fishers through to the management of small-scale [fishing]. Abalobi is the management tool that will be used for information management,” he says.

Originally designed in 2012 and 2013 for desktop computers by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishers and the University of Cape Town, with 180,000 South African rand (US$12,320) seed funding from the Vodacom Foundation in 2014, researchers have further developed it into open source app. This was supplemented by about US$6,800 research grant from South Africa’s National Research Foundation in 2015.

The draft Abalobi app was presented to government in February 2015.

With the data collected via Abalobi, fishers can prove that they make their living from the sea, says Nico Waldeck, a traditional fisher who recently joined the Abalobi project team.

“What’s critical is that the fishers own their data … and then they decide who they want to share them with.”

“Proof” is an important aspect of Abalobi, as fishers and academics who spoke to SciDev.Net and the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa say that the government does not believe them.

For instance, Shoshola says that scientists come once a year to the pilot site in Lamberts Bay and decide on the stock assessments in an area, while the traditional fishers’ experience and catches are not included in such activities.

Serge Raemaekers – the South Africa-based University of Cape Town researcher who began the project with Waldeck and Abongile Ngqongwa of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, says: “Government has no way of knowing what the catch per unit effort is of these fishers, because they have very little data. They have a little information from the monitors [government employees who are based at the harbour and take note of the fishers’ catches], but that’s a small percentage of what’s actually going on out there.”

Ngqongwa, deputy-director of small-scale fisheries management unit, agrees that there is a data gap. “From the simple sample that we’ve done, it showed that the majority of the resource that we are monitoring on our side, as the department, is not even recorded,” he says.

“Currently, for now, we’re still at a stage of developing the app itself,” Ngqongwa says. “We still need to address some finer details such as, for example, who is going to own the data itself, and how are we going to access the data that is going to be generated by fishers. That is why we are currently having these pilots in these areas.”

There are five pilot studies in Port Nolleth, Hondeklip Bay, Lamberts Bay, Kleinmond and Struisbaai in the Northern and Western Cape. More pilot studies are planned, Ngqongwa says.

Raemaekers add that apart from allocating rights, which is probably the first step, the fisheries policy requires many considerations such as generating data including type of fish, how they are caught and how much income fishers make per round. Others include how to encourage small-scale fishers to form co-operatives and how to develop local economies around this small-scale fishing policy. “It’s the whole value chain,” Raemaekers says.

This is why the policy’s roll-out needs Abalobi. “When you’re looking at a sector that size, you need to use technology that can get information quickly… We need to get data from the ground, and sometimes in very rural parts of South Africa to a centralised point so we can analyse it,” Smith explains.

Perhaps one of the most important functions for the app will be to mend relations between government and fisher communities. After years of litigation, as well as the long delays in the roll-out of the small-scale policy, there are tensions and mistrust between different stakeholders. This is why it is necessary for fishers to own their own data, says Raemaekers. “What’s critical is that the fishers own their data … and then they decide who they want to share them with. It’s sort of the development of a trust-building, relationship-building exercise.”

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About the Author

Brent Lindeque is the founder and editor in charge at Good Things Guy.

Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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